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Yes, smart motorways have taken so long to officially ‘open’ that the roadworks have become a firm part of British transport history. 

But, in the rare corners of the UK road network where the four lane strip is now in use, do we really know what to do with them? 

According the latest research by the RAC, up to 23% of British drivers have driven down smart motorways in a lane which is actually closed, without even realising. The red ‘X’ symbol in the overhead gantry means that road users must exit the lane as soon as possible, and yet so many drivers are unaware of the dangers ignoring this sign could carry. 

In fact, in those stretches of motorway where the hard shoulder is used as either a permanent or temporary running lane, the only reason a red ‘X’ sign would even be displayed would be in the case of “a stricken driver who has not managed to reach an SOS area” confirms RAC spokesperson, Simon Williams. And so, failing to acknowledge the red ‘X’ could potentially be risking lives. 

Out of the 2,093 RAC Opinion Panel members questioned, a total of 84% recalled seeing a red ‘X’ on the electronic variable message signs, with an incredible 99% confirming they did fully understand what this symbol meant. 

Furthermore, 87% said their first reaction would be to move into the next open lane at the safest opportunity, and 13% saying they would aim to move lanes as soon as possible, but admitted that they would still continue to pass up to one or two more red ‘X’ signs before moving. 

That said, the research also reveals that drivers are being spotted all too often ignoring this sign. Up to 48% of those questioned confirmed they had literally seen drivers disobey the red ‘X’, followed by 36% claiming to only occasionally see this. 

For those drivers caught uncontrollably in the hard shoulder running lane, either through an accident, vehicle fault or simply being unable to reach a safe area, they are left at a “tremendous risk of being involved in a collision with vehicles that ignore them” states Williams, “it is also extremely dangerous if road workers or emergency service staff are attending to incident in the road.” 

It’s also worth emphasising here that this is not a new road law which has been recently introduced. Williams rightly explains the highway code rule 258 explicitly states that “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.” 

Since Highways England first began working to improve compliance over the red ‘X’ signs back in 2016, more than a 160,000 warning letters have been distributed to drivers who had either used sections of the hard shoulder despite it being officially opened as a running lane, or had failed to acknowledge the law surrounding the red ‘X’. 

Interestingly, 66% of survey respondents supported the idea of utilising camera technology to enforce punishments of those failing to adhere. 

Heather Waters is a Digital and Content Marketing Executive at Teletrac Navman.

Heather Waters is an innovative and driven digital content marketer with a degree from Manchester Metropolitan University emphasis on Film and TV.