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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 September 2006, 11:25 GMT 12:25 UK
Will hard shoulders ease congestion?
M42 with hard shoulder open to traffic
The first motorists used the hard shoulder at 7.45am this morning

The Magazine answers...

The hard shoulder of a motorway is being opened to traffic to cut rush-hour congestion. Will it ease motorists' frustrations - or put their lives at risk?

The M42 in the West Midlands is one of the most heavily-congested motorways in the country - and to help the traffic keep moving a stretch of the hard shoulder is being opened as an additional lane.

This has prompted safety fears - particularly for drivers who break down on the stretch of motorway that has traffic running on the hard shoulder. How would such breakdowns be reached? How would fast-moving traffic avoid vehicles stranded in this lane?

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The pilot project is using an 11-mile stretch of the M42 between junctions 3A and 7 to examine the feasibility of using the hard shoulder - with the first cars rumbling down this extra lane at 7.45am during Tuesday's rush hour.

Sensors, every 100 metres in the road surface, measure the volume of traffic - and if it appears to be at risk of grinding to a halt - the "active traffic management" system will come into operation, allowing cars to use the hard shoulder at a maximum speed of 50mph.

This part of the motorway carries 125,000 vehicles per day - and the greatest concern has been over breakdowns or collisions during heavy traffic. Where will cars be able to wait for assistance?

1 The Highways Agency, which is running the test, has built "emergency refuge areas" every 500 metres, which are roadside bays where broken-down cars will be able to wait for rescue services - acting almost like large lay-bys beyond the margins of the hard shoulder.

Monitored motorway

These refuge areas will be monitored by CCTV cameras and detectors in the road surface so that help can be sent as soon as possible.

But the big worry will be what happens if your car comes to a halt on the hard shoulder when it's being used by traffic. Hard shoulders are notoriously dangerous - even without the risk of the lane being used by convoys of juggernauts.

Congestion sign
Signs above the motorway tell drivers when they can use the hard shoulder

The Highways Agency says this stretch of motorway will be closely monitored by cameras - and that any lane that is blocked, including the hard shoulder, can be closed immediately.

"It won't be a case of waiting for someone to contact us, we'll see straight away," says a Highways Agency spokesperson.

And the roads agency is confident that if there is a blockage in the hard shoulder, traffic will be stopped swiftly and access for emergency vehicles can be secured.

This re-working of the road has cost 100m - but the Highways Agency says this could still be a more cost effective way of tackling congestion. Adding an additional lane would have cost 500m - and would have meant using more land.

The M42 project - covering the area of Birmingham airport, the NEC and links between other routes such as the M6 - will also examine how to keep different types of traffic flowing.

The merging of local and long-distance traffic can cause delays and the Highways Agency envisages in peak hours, local traffic, maybe only travelling for one or two junctions, could stay within the hard shoulder.

Breakdown fears

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents remains to be convinced about using hard shoulders - and warns if the experiment proves dangerous, the Highways Agency will have to be ready to scrap it.

Motorway map
An 11-mile stretch of the M42 will test the use of the hard shoulder

"Using the hard shoulder as a running lane may make it more difficult for drivers to find somewhere safe to stop if they break down as the emergency refuges are only spaced at intervals along the motorway," says a RoSPA spokesperson.

"Emergency service and breakdown vehicles may also find it more difficult to reach breakdowns and accidents, which would delay accident victims receiving help and delay the motorway being cleared."

RoSPA also fears this could be a dangerous precedent, giving road users the idea that it is permissible to use the hard shoulder when motorways are blocked.

The concept of using the hard shoulder is not entirely new. A similar scheme has been tested in the Netherlands - where the Highways Agency says that it led to a 13% drop in accidents. And hard shoulders have been used to cut congestion in Germany and in a number of US states.

The Highways Agency claimed that the first test on Tuesday had been "a real success" and that traffic had moved onto the hard shoulder without any problems.

If the system proves effective in the long term, it's expected that it could be extended to other motorways.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

This sytem has and does work very well in Germany. It's about time we used something like this and stopped building wider motorways.
Paul Turner, Thundersley

At last, a common sense approach to the issue of congestion. I hope this succeeds in its aims.
Phil, Newcastle

What a ridiculous idea! It's all very well for the highways agency to say they can watch the motorway and react immediately to changing circumstances, such as a vehicle break-down or an accident. However, that doesn't mean that the traffic on the hard shoulder can react immediately. I am sure closing the lane and getting the traffic moved out of it, into other congested lanes would seriously impact emergency services' ability to respond to a call.
Annabelle Minchom, Berkshire

I think it will ease congestion as an extra lane will be available... that is until someone breaks down and can't get to the emergency refuges. Then it'll make no difference, but I do think its worth a try.
Dan, Lordswood

The idea sounds pretty good - I have to admit that when travelling into Leeds on the M62 there have been times when, due to traffic gridlock on the main lanes, I sometimes pop onto the hard shoulder in order to come off at the junction whereas many of the HGVs are simply heading further afield to Manchester. My reasoning is that by coming off a little sooner i'm not adding to the gridlock when i've only got several hundred yards to go before my turn off anyway.
Vinny, Pontefract, West Yorkshire

One word sums it up. Madness!
Zoe, Bedford

Coming from someone who has spent hours sitting in traffic on the M42 I think it's a great idea. Plus all the extra gantry signs with information and varying speed limits, I feel absolutely lost when I get on, the M6 for example, and am left to my own devices as to choosing speed and having no info as to where the traffic jams are!
Sarah, Birmingham

As someone who commutes to Birmingham via the M42 most days, I generally welcome the scheme. However, it was run on a limited basis last week, and was fully up and running yesterday (Monday) although few people were taking advantage of it. I do have two reservations. Firstly, the emergency refuge areas are very short, and the thought of having to move out of one back into 50mph traffic worries me, as there is no space to build up speed first. Secondly, several thoughtless drivers created problems this morning. At a distance of one mile from a junction, you are only supposed to use the hard shoulder if you are coming off at that junction. However, several cars and quite a few HGVs would use the hard shoulder right up to the junction, and then stop and wait to be let out into lane one, thus preventing traffic from exiting the junction and having to wait. I hope that will be closely monitored, and those responsible dealt with
Kelvin Green, Worcester

I think it's a good idea, however I think I would like to see "undertaking" allowed on main motorways. The M25 for example always has the inside and middle lane rather empty as everyone heads for the "fast" lane. It only means we would have to be even more aware of traffic around us. I don't think that's a bad thing!
Craig, Folkestone

It will surely just lead to 3 blocked lanes plus a blocked hard shoulder instead of 3 blocked lanes and a clear hard shoulder. Improvement?
Katherine, London

I think it is potentially incredibly dangerous. So they will put a 50 mph speed limit on... speed limit, what's that? I watched around 100 cars cheerfully drive under a red lane closed sign at 60+ the other day. They just ignored it and pressed on. A bit further on was a nasty smash being sorted out by the emergency services. Then they expected everyone to brake and let them in to the other lane. Also, the hard shoulder is often covered with tyre debris etc. so a puncture is more likely anyway.
Helen, Manchester

My gut instinct is that is a bad plan, however I can't come up with any real reasons why they shouldn't use the hard shoulder. Realistically if you car suffers serious problems in any of the inner lanes then reaching the hard shoulder is very hard. It offers an illusion of safety rather than actual safety.
Peter, Nottingham

I live in Germany where there is an apparently identical system on the A8 southbound between Munich and Salzburg (in Austria). I have never experienced any problem with the system whatsoever and it seems to have been successful because it is currently being extended to the northbond carriageway. However I would add a word of caution, that this only works because of the technology behind it - the monitoring is essential. I only hope the UK has invested properly in this trial and isn't trying to do it on the cheap.
Alice, Munich, Germany

Stupid idea. In 25 years driving I've been broken down on the hard shoulder twice. On one of those occasions I wouldn't have been able to coast 500 yards to the emergency refuge so I could have been stopped with a 25 ton lorry bearing down on me. Will it take deaths before the Highways Agency realise how dangerous this is?
Ian, Stoke

The more that is done to help motorists, the more they demand. They seem to think they have the right to get from A to B whenever they want to, and as fast as they want to, and they complain like anything if something stops them. They are "long-suffering", they "pay through the nose" for using their cars etc. For once, can funds be directed to those of us who don't drive-and-whinge, but who make the effort to find an alternative? Perhaps motorists should try cycling or taking public transport for a while - that might show them what a spoilt lot they are.
Susan, Berkshire

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