ITV News Meridian's James Dunham was given exclusive access to the smart motorway control room
Some of the country’s smart motorways have seen a dramatic increase in the number of drivers ignoring the red ‘x’ sign.
The signal is displayed to alert motorists of a breakdown or accident ahead in a specific lane, which often needs access by the emergency services.
National Highways say the rules must be followed to keep drivers safe but critics say the red ‘x’ is confusing and emphasises the fact that the smart motorway system is flawed.
A claim disputed by National Highways' Sean Martell,
“The red ‘x’ is there to tell people not to drive any further in that lane or not to enter that lane after that sig.
“I don't think that it creates any additional danger, it's a sign to protect people and protect the people that are broken down in that in that lane.
“Smart motorways don’t have hard shoulders they have emergency areas and over the last year we’ve fitted more of those and we’ve got plans to fit even more.
“Those smart motorway sections have safety built in.”
Claire Mercer from the campaign group Smart Motorway Kills, she setup after the loss of her husband Jason who died on the M1 smart motorway said,
“I get a lot of people telling me that they slam on the brakes because they see the red ‘x’.
“A big problem is you can’t see around the lorries so you can't see what's in the lights.
"Also, people say that they feel like they're watching the signs a lot more than they're watching the road.
“They (smart motorways) were bought in by stealth. I get people messaging me every single day saying they won’t use them or they avoid the first lane, so they’re not working.”
In 2021, which included some lockdown months, around 1,000 red ‘x’ offences were recorded by Surrey Police but that rocketed to around 7,000 last year.
National Highways says specialist technology can detect the majority of drivers who’ve broken down in a live lane, and in the South East signals are being set in a minute and half from a notification of an incident being received by the control room. The target is three minutes.
On Wednesday, Labour MP Sarah Champion called on the Government to reintroduce the hard shoulder on smart motorways, during an emotive plea,
“How much evidence does the government need? How many more people have to die? How many more families are left to grieve their loved ones? We cannot continue to gamble with the lives of motorists.”
Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport Richard Holden MP said,
“There are occasions when something does not work as expected or improvements need to be made and National Highways are fully aware of this.
“They are investing £105 million over the next two years to improve CCTV and other technology.”
The building of any new smart motorways has been paused by the Government while it awaits new safety data, but construction is continuing on those roads where work has already started.
The debate In Westminster comes as smart motorway systems outside of the South East and East suffered an unexpected outage on Wednesday morning, affecting the emergency signals.
National Highways say an urgent investigation is underway and extra traffic officer patrols were put in place while the issues were repaired.
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