Almost one quarter (23%) of drivers have driven in a lane on a smart motorway closed by the red ‘X’ sign in the past year, RAC research suggests.
With hundreds of miles of smart motorways across England now using the hard shoulder as either a permanent or part-time running lane, it is a dangerous trend that is potentially putting lives at risk.
The survey of 2,093 members of the RAC Opinion Panel, who had driven on a motorway in the past year, confirmed more than eight in 10 drivers (84%) had seen a red ‘X’ appear on the verge-mounted or overhead gantry electronic variable message signs. Almost all of these (99%) said they understood it signified the lane was closed.
Nine in 10 (87%) said their first action is to move, when safe to do so, into another lane which is not closed, while the remainder (13%) say they change lanes as soon as possible, but admit they might pass one or two red ‘X’ signs before doing so.
However, the research revealed that the sight of drivers disobeying red ‘X’ smart motorway signs is all too common, with nearly half (48%) of those questioned saying they frequently see this and more than a third (36%) claiming to see it occasionally. Only 7% said they do not see drivers ignoring red ‘X’ signs.
RAC spokesperson Simon Williams said: “Red ‘X’ signs, which denote when lanes are closed, are paramount in safety terms as any stricken driver who has not managed to reach an SOS area is at tremendous risk of being involved in a collision with vehicles that ignore them. It is also extremely dangerous if road workers or emergency service staff are attending to incident in the road.
“Highway Code rule 258 is explicit; if red lights on the overhead signals flash above your lane and a red ‘X’ is showing, you must not go beyond the signal in that lane.”
Opinions of those who commit this offence are very clear, with 61% deeming them to be ‘irresponsible’, 54% saying they are at risk of being involved in a serious accident, 45% saying they have made an innocent but potentially dangerous mistake, and more than a third (37%) claim they are unobservant and perhaps shouldn't be driving.
Highways England has been working since 2016 to improve compliance with red ‘X’ signs and has issued more than 160,000 warning letters to drivers who had either used sections of hard shoulder when not designated as a running lane or had failed to comply with a red ‘X’.
In 2017, the Government amended the Road Traffic Offenders Act to enable red ‘X’ offences to be captured by a remote or automated device, but legislation still has to be completed before the technology can be used in enforcement.
Those surveyed by the RAC were very much in favour of cameras being used to catch people who drive under a red ‘X’ with two-thirds (66%) supporting the idea and only a third (34%) against.
Williams said: “Highways England has been working hard to get the message across to drivers that they should not drive in lanes closed by red Xs, but there is still some way to go to ensure near total compliance.”