Smart motorway refuge area safety fears following ITV News investigation

Tap to watch a video report by ITV News Meridian's James Dunham

An investigation by ITV News Meridian into the size of emergency refuge bays on multi-million pound smart motorway schemes in the Thames Valley, South and South East suggest many may have been built to a shorter length than the intended safety design standard.

National Highways, who are responsible for smart motorways, acknowledge that some may vary in design and say they cannot verify our calculations.

When it came to two motorways, the M23 in Sussex and Surrey and M20 in Kent, we measured all the bays to be under 100 metres, but that's disputed by the organisation who say they do meet the design standard.

The refuges are a key feature of motorways without hard shoulders, replacing a lane to move into with bays set back from the carriageway.

A refuge bay on the M23. National Highways say the emergency area is safer than a hard shoulder Credit: ITV Meridian

Our findings

Our measurements suggest that on the…

  •  M23 two out of 12 were at 100 metres or above. One was recorded at 80m.

  •  M20 all five are not 100 metres. The minimum 90.97m and the longest at 94.58m

  • M3 – eight out of 12 over 100m. The minimum 95.29m and longest 106.19m

  • M25 (J5 - /7) - two out of 14 are at 100 metres.The minimum 89.74m and longest 102.21m

  • M4 - six out of 13 we were able to measure were below 100 metres. The minimum 94.92m and longest 97.24m

  • People at a service station share their thoughts on smart motorway refuge areas

National Highways response

National Highways initially released a statement to ITV News Meridian that it cannot verify our figures but acknowledges the designs of some emergency bays may vary because of geographical features.National Highways Smart Motorways Alliance Manager Tony Slater said:

“Emergency areas provide a safer place to stop than the hard shoulder; they are set back from the carriageway and are also wider than the hard shoulder.

“They are designed to a standard 100 metres in length, but in certain instances this may vary due to local geography.

“We carried out extensive work to test both the size and design of emergency areas in collaboration with the recovery industry and can assure they can accommodate several vehicles. We cannot verify the calculations made by ITV Meridian.”

Days later, the Government organisation then went on to specifically dispute our figures on the M23 and M20 claiming all are above 100 metres.National Highways Smart Motorways Programme Director David Bray said:“Emergency areas provide a safer place to stop than the hard shoulder.“They are designed and built to a standard 100 metres in length. We do not recognise the calculations made by ITV Meridian and the emergency area lengths that we have been able to determine in the time provided all meet the agreed standard.”National Highways say that the bay, which we measured was in construction still, despite having a very clear outline on the map on where it would be positioned.

So how can we be confident in findings?

ITV News Meridian measured the length of smart motorway refuge areas Credit: Source: Google Maps, Bluesky, Getmapping plc, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, Landsat / Copermicus, Maxar Technologies, The GeoInformation Group

ITV News Meridian uses Google Maps online satellite measuring tool to record the sizes of refuge bays.

We tested the accuracy tool by measuring the refuge bays of the M1 in South Yorkshire. We compared our measurements to official figures released in a Freedom of Information Request which was accurate to the data.

To go even further, we then used the tool to measure several cars and used official information on the length of vehicles. Our findings showed both figures either matched or were just a handful of centimetres out.Measurements were then recorded on two outside walls at ITV News Meridian’s newsroom and these also came out accurately.

  • Independent civil engineer Jonathan Spruce explains why some may vary in design

Jack Cousens, head of roads policy for the AA, said: “When it comes to ‘smart’ motorway safety, every metre matters.

“The 100 metre guidance allows the best possible chance for drivers to safely stop in an emergency refuge area without overhanging the live lane. It also allows breakdown patrols more room to safely enter and work on a casualty vehicle while offering more space to re-join the carriageway when they need to leave the refuge area.“However, our main concern is the distance between each emergency area. Many of these schemes still have emergency laybys spaced a mile and a half apart, rather than the government adopted AA standard of three quarters of a mile. By adding more refuge areas we help drivers in need being able to get out the live lane.”

National Highways say that when it comes to serious injuries and fatalities smart motorways are safer than conventional ones.The organisation points to their latest data that between 2016 and 2020 there were no fatalities in refuge areas and that the emergency areas are safer than hard shoulders, as they are wider and set back from the carriageway.

By 2025 an additional 150 refuge areas are being retrofitted across the smart motorway network to add "reassurance" to drivers.

Claire Mercer's husband, Jason, died in a smart motorway crash near Sheffield in 2019. Credit: PA

Campaigner Claire Mercer who started the group Smart Motorways Kill after the death of her husband on the M3 said,

"The size of the refuge areas is something that’s been flagged to me as a worry time and time again and that’s when motorist take the info they are given as being correct i.e. . that these refuge areas are 100 metres in length, so to find that in reality many of them aren’t that long and some are considerable under size is very scary.

"Most of the people that have mentioned it haven’t had to use one yet, so what is going to happen when they do and find they are even smaller or what if it hasn’t occurred to a user as a concern until they are trying to fit safely into one?

"I’ve had quite a few people raise with me that they have needed to use a refuge only to find a motorist already in the next one they come too, so that makes this issue even more of a problem."