12 3 mins 7 yrs

FOR THOSE unfortunate enough not to be British, we have a concept on our motorways known as the “Hard Shoulder”. It’s a lane over to the left which must not be driven in. It’s reserved for emergency vehicles (which need an open lane to get past a traffic jam) and broken down motors.

The M25 is the motorway which circles London. Government transport planners have long wanted to widen it because it’s a byword for congestion. Their bodged solution was to remove the Hard Shoulder on certain stretches of the M25 earlier this year, turning it from Hard Shoulder + three lanes to four lanes of traffic. Congestion has not improved, and it’s now a death trap. I know that because I almost ended up dead on it today.

At 4.15pm I was in the second lane of four, (no Hard Shoulder) going round the top part of the motorway. It was getting dark and the cruise control was rolling at 70mph. (Owners of American wheels are can be assured that motors really can go that fast). A van was in the first lane to my left, doing about 50mph so I was gaining on it. As I was almost level and about to go past it, the van violently swerved right, bang into my path and just feet away. I genuinely thought I was a goner. All I could do was stand on the brakes. Bailing out to the right would have me smashing into another motor, so the brakes juddered like mad while I waited for my motor to end up like an accordian.

Luckily the van driver accelerated as he almost killed me and I was inches from hitting him. Then I saw why he did that: a car was in the first lane, broken down. There’s no hard shoulder so the driver had no option but to stop in the first lane of a 70mph motorway. He must be dim because he didn’t even have the hazard lights on, and was standing on the motorway side of the armco barrier. I know for a fact that there was no warning triangle in the lane.

Obviously the van driver realised at the last second that the car lights in front of him weren’t moving. So he had to yank his Transit right and almost into me. That’s why it’s a death trap, because there’s nowhere for people with car trouble to get out of the way, with 70mph+ motors and 56mph trucks bearing down.

That’s some really impressive work from the Highways Agency, that is.

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  1. // It was getting dark and the cruise control was rolling at 70mph.//

    It’s just as well you weren’t driving fast then.

    How dark was “just getting dark”? Even without flashing hazard lights and warning triangle, the van driver should have realised that the vehicle in front of him was stopped. His lane must have been empty for some distance before the stopped vehicle. You may not see that it’s stopped immediately, but it’s a clear case of negligence if you don’t recognise a stopped vehicle until you’re almost on top of it.
    I would have noted the van’s number, then pulled in in front of the stopped car and noted his too. Then reported them both for causing danger on the road.

    Coincidentally, through my work I’m reading a lot about automatic stopping systems and systems for preventing accidental lane change in cars. The former would have stopped your car in that situation much more reliably, and evenly, than you did. But it’s very tricky software. It’s going to take either a lot of refinement or a lot of road deaths before it can be introduced.

  2. Even without flashing hazard lights and warning triangle, the van driver should have realised that the vehicle in front of him was stopped. His lane must have been empty for some distance before the stopped vehicle.

    Absolutely right. He was probably on his mobile.

  3. It sounds as though what you call a ” hard shoulder ” is called the ” breakdown lane ” in the US. You’ll see them in bery many modern highways in the US.

    The highways/ bridges that don’t have them in the US would tend to be the older/ out of date ones, some built in the 1920s. We have a disproportionately high number of these bad roads in NYC and environs.

    The problem in places like NYC and London is that the cities and suburbs are already densely populated with people –and roads. If you add new breakdown lanes in both directions, you are taking a lot of space from something – from green space perhaps? You can’t do that endlessly.

    Maybe people should not be driving 70 mph in a congested highway with no breakdown lane – ever think if that?

  4. It was safe to drive at 70mph. The sun had just set but it was not yet dark, the motorway is lit, conditions were dry and traffic wasn’t heavy.

    Besides, the van driver could have swerved in front of me if I was doing 60mph, or 50mph. The root of the problem was a broken down car with no Hard Shoulder to retreat onto.

  5. Why didn’t they expand the road?

    Cost, or community opposition, etc?

    There are finite limits to road expansions in cities. Every inch of space taken by a new lane is taken from another use, or is adding to crowding / pollution of those who live near the road.

  6. Why didn’t they expand the road?

    Cost and hassle, probably. The M25 circles London, but is outside London and most of it runs through countryside. It would be alot of new concrete and tarmac to widen it.

  7. I can understand the desire to protect the surviving remnants of countryside.

    There are endless demands to pave the land over for all the many food and bad reasons.

    If you lose those grasslands, you never get them back.

  8. I can understand the desire to protect the surviving remnants of countryside.


    This is the Home Counties countryside. It is totally protected by the greenbelt which is in turn defended by dozens of Tory MPs. It is the main reason for astronomical house prices in London.

  9. Noted.

    But isn’t there a genuine good in preserving a greenbelt?

    I don’t know what the right balance is there – thats only for locals to say – but this issue comes up everywhere, including here.

    Brooklyn and this metro area IMO doesn’t have enough green areas. But we do have some.

    The other week, a local referred to a local small city owned golf course and said ” most people don’t golf. Housing is so expensive. They should build housing on that land ”


    I completely disagreed. – without some green space, megacities will be unlivable, esp in the hot summers. There can be other solutions for housing than paving over remaining green lands.

  10. Pete

    See this photo


    It is of an elevated highway not far from me – the Gowanus Expressway, which blights a stretch of Mixed residential and industrial Brooklyn. Its three lanes each way, no breakdown lane. They could rebuild the road to add another lane, but doing so would take away what little sunshine that finds its way into the areas the road travels through.

    I rarely see cars going over say 55 mph there, because thats the speed limit there, which is respected because the lanes are narrow and there is no room for any error.

    I think that 70 mph is way too fast on a road with no extra lane, and I also think that extreme care should be taken to enlarging any highways in populated areas of cities / suburbs. Highways and cars create as many problems as they solve, and I say this as a car owner who likes to deive.

  11. Thank God the Government saved Pete’s life! Had vehicles been traveling well in excess of the government’s 70 mph limits, vehicles without government-mandated inspected brakes, vehicles without the regulated tire tread depth (and assorted prohibited tire defects), over an unmaintained surface, vehicles driven by untested and unlicensed drivers, whose windshields might have been tinted too dark to see out of we might have seen less of Moore.

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