After recent analysis by Highways England highlighted the potential dangers of smart motorways, new research released today by Kwik Fit reveals that confusion and safety concerns are resulting in many drivers not using the hard shoulder when it’s open1.

More than half (56%) of British drivers, some 23.1 million people, say they avoid driving on the hard shoulder of smart motorways at some points, even when the signs indicate its open for traffic. The most common reason given is uncertainty over whether they should be on the hard shoulder at all, stated by 29% of these drivers, followed by concern that there may be a stationary vehicle ahead (25%). Almost as many motorists, 24%, gave a general concern, saying that they don’t think smart motorways are safe and therefore drive as if it’s a normal motorway.

Other reasons given by drivers who avoid the hard shoulder on smart motorways were that they don’t like driving so close to the verge (15%), that they are concerned about debris causing damage to their car or getting a puncture (15%), and not having an escape lane in case they have to change lanes quickly (14%).

Drivers’ uncertainty over when they can use the hard shoulder on a smart motorway was clear in the study carried out for Kwik Fit, the UK’s largest automotive servicing and repair company. One in five drivers (20%) said they didn’t know when the hard shoulder was in use, while 13% said you can never use the hard shoulder of a smart motorway. A mere four in ten drivers (42%) correctly stated that you can drive on the hard shoulder on a smart motorway only when directed by overhead signs.

Moreover, even fewer drivers could identify the overhead gantry symbol which indicates the hard shoulder is open on a smart motorway. Just 29% of motorists correctly stated that a sign above the hard shoulder showing a speed limit indicates that it is to be used as an open lane. Worryingly, the Kwik Fit study found more than one in seven drivers (15%) believe a blank sign means the lane is open whereas in fact, it means the exact opposite

Only 29% of drivers in Kwik Fit’s study identified this smart motorway sign as meaning the hard shoulder was open:

45% said flashing amber lights with an arrow (as show below) meant a lane was open. In fact, this sign is used above motorway lanes to indicate there is a hazard ahead and to move over to the next lane.

Most common reasons given by drivers for avoiding the open hard shoulder on smart motorways

Reason given Percentage of drivers avoiding hard shoulder
I am often uncertain whether I should be on the hard shoulder or not as the signs are unclear 29%
I am concerned that there may be a stationary vehicle ahead 25%
I don’t think smart motorways are safe and therefore drive as if it’s a normal motorway 24%
I do not like driving so close to the verge on the motorway 15%
I am concerned of damage to my car, either through debris or getting a puncture 15%
I do not like having no escape route to my left-hand side if I need to change lanes quickly 14%

Source: Research for Kwik Fit, 2019

Roger Griggs, communications director of Kwik Fit, said: “These findings reflect the concerns and uncertainty that many drivers have when driving on smart motorways. It’s clear that if many drivers are avoiding using the hard shoulder when it’s open, then the extra capacity which smart motorways are designed to provide is not being utilised properly and we will end up being in a worse position than with the original road layout.

“It is vital that there is a nationwide information campaign to ensure that drivers fully understand when they can and cannot use the hard shoulder if smart motorways are to be accepted by drivers and provide a way to ease congestion – something we need desperately.”

For those motorists who are looking for advice on driving on smart motorways, Kwik Fit has provided some practical information on its website at kwik-fit.com. (Please note the page will go live tomorrow)

For the latest news and updates from Kwik Fit, customers can also follow the company on Twitter at @kwik_fit.