M6 Congestion

Drivers are still unsure about emergency refuge areas on smart motorways

With changes happening to our motorways, it’s important to know what to do if you encounter a problem while driving and how this could differ on a ‘smart’ motorway. Remember, if you lease a car through the Motability Scheme, you are covered for full breakdown assistance with the RAC as part of the all-inclusive, worry-free motoring package. 


The rise in the number of ‘smart’ motorways in the UK is raising safety concerns after new figures revealed that less than half of motorists know where to pull over safely during an emergency. 

New figures from the RAC show 52 per cent of drivers do not know what an emergency refuge area is on a smart motorway. Highways England is currently busy converting existing motorways into ‘smart’ motorways, which replace the hard shoulder with an extra lane in order to cut congestion and reduce travel times, but the figures would indicate that driver education is not keeping pace.

By 2020, many more existing motorways are expected to have been upgraded to smart motorways, providing more than 472 extra lane miles of capacity to the strategic road network.

Highways England has built emergency refuge areas 1.6 miles apart across the smart motorway network for drivers with car problems to pull into. However, according to the RAC, drivers are clearly unaware of what to do during an emergency when driving on a smart motorway.

This isn’t the first time the question of emergency refuge areas has come into question. Last year, the Transport Select Committee branded plans to permanently convert hard shoulders into live running lanes as “unacceptable”, after it raised safety concerns over breakdowns and accidents. 

RAC chief engineer David Bizley, said: “Even though the first smart motorway was created more than 10 years ago and more schemes have come into operation in the last few years, there will still be many people who have not driven on one purely as a result of where they live and drive. Existing signage for emergency refuge areas is clear but will be further improved to make it even better for everyone.

“It is essential that motorists understand how and when to use an emergency refuge area so they do not put their own safety and that of other road users at risk. Vehicles should pull up to the indicated mark on the tarmac and then the occupants should leave the vehicle from the passenger side. Everyone should stand behind the barriers and should use the emergency roadside telephone provided to speak to a Highways England representative.” 

Smart motorway safety tips

Below are top tips on what to do if you encounter a problem on a smart motorway…

• Use an emergency refuge area if you are able to reach one safely. These are marked with blue signs featuring an orange SOS telephone symbol on them.

• If you can leave your vehicle safely, contact Highways England via the roadside emergency telephone provided in all emergency refuge areas. A traffic officer will either be sent to help, or the motorway signs will be set to temporarily close lanes or reduce speed limits whilst you remain in the emergency refuge area.

• A further call to Highways England is recommended when you plan to re-join the motorway so further restrictions can be put in place to make this as safe as possible.

• If you cannot get to an emergency refuge area but the vehicle can be driven, move it to the hard shoulder (where provided) or as close to the nearside verge or other nearside boundary as possible. In an emergency, Highways England advises to call 999. 

• In all cases, switch on your hazard warning lights, exit the car through the nearside door and stand on the far side of the safety barrier.

This article was written by Martin Saarinen from Auto Express and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.


If your Motability Scheme car ever breaks down on the road, it is covered for assistance from the RAC for your whole lease. Wherever you are, they aim to have someone with you within 40 minutes. Find out more about breakdown assistance for your Motability Scheme car. 

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