Orange is the new grey

Published on 19 July 2017

Highways England are running a trial to see whether emergency lay-bys can be improved by painting them orange. What are they up to?

Work to upgrade the M3 between junctions 2 and 4A to Smart Motorway has just been finished, and already the UK's newest stretch of hi-tech highway is being used as a test bed for new ideas. Last week, Highways England announced they were starting trials of a new type of emergency area. Its main distinguishing feature is that it's been painted orange. Two have been installed on the M3 near Camberley.

The aim of the scheme is fairly simple. Highways England want drivers to be able to spot the emergency facilities more easily and they want it to be more obvious that they are for emergency use and not just parking up.

One of two experimental orange emergency areas on the M3 near Camberley. Click to enlarge
One of two experimental orange emergency areas on the M3 near Camberley. Click to enlarge

To a certain extent this is about making things simpler and more user-friendly for drivers, and is the kind of thing we should expect to see more often now that Highways England is a company that talks about customers rather than a Government agency that sees its work as a public service. The name is a good example - until now these have been called Emergency Refuge Areas, or ERAs, but customer research has told Highways England that people don't find the word "refuge" helpful, so it's been dropped. They are now to be known simply as Emergency Areas.

At the centre of this trial is a very honest recognition that Smart Motorways are still bewildering to some motorists, and that more can be done to make their features more intuitive.

"We recognise the public concern about smart motorways and we also believe that changes such as these will help drivers have confidence when using them and be clear about where they can stop in an emergency.

"That is why we are trialling these highly visible new style emergency areas. The bright orange colouring will make them as easy as possible to spot and should also discourage drivers from using them in non-emergency situations."

Jim O'Sullivan, Chief Executive, Highways England

This trial is not just about orange paint - it's also about Smart Motorways coming of age, and undergoing a transition from an experiment to an everyday part of motorway travel.

Part of the furniture

In the decade that this technology has been developing, it's been changing all the time. The official name has changed from Active Traffic Management to Managed Motorways to Smart Motorways, and the exact features (including the size, shape and spacing of emergency facilities) have varied from one scheme to the next. But things are settling down now and a standard has been set. In the coming years Highways England expect the majority of England's key inter-city routes to be Smart Motorways. What we have now is just the start.

When they were new, the features of a Smart Motorway were explained in writing. The earliest Variable Speed Limits on the M25 were accompanied by instructions to Stay In Lane and Observe Limits. Big blue signs at the start of the original M42 trial explained how the hard shoulder might sometimes be in use and sometimes not. Many emergency lay-bys have black and yellow signs with paragraphs of Do and Do Not instructions. But if Smart Motorways are going to be a part of the furniture, we need to throw away the instruction manual and make them easy to use.

Taking a break

A tanker lorry passes the emergency lay-by without stopping. Click to enlarge
A tanker lorry passes the emergency lay-by without stopping. Click to enlarge

One persistent problem is misuse of emergency areas. When motorways were new in the 1950s, the "no stopping" rule was famously hard to enforce, with stories of people parking up and having picnics on the grass verges. The hard shoulder is still commonly used by people pulling in to make a phone call or get something out of the boot, and the sight of a parent taking a small child for an impromptu toilet break is common on any long journey.

On Smart Motorways, especially those with All Lane Running, there's no hard shoulder, but non-emergency parking still happens. Give a lorry driver a lay-by and they'll pull in for a rest break.

Motorways in the UK have never had lay-bys and they've never provided roadside facilities to stop for a rest - something HGV drivers legally have to do at regular intervals. But across Europe lay-bys are common even on some motorways, and foreign HGV drivers seem to regularly confuse emergency facilities on Smart Motorways with the Free Parking space on the Monopoly board.

The new sign used in the trial. Click to enlarge
The new sign used in the trial. Click to enlarge

The north side of the M25 suffers particularly badly from this - at some times of the day the refuge areas seem to all be filled with foreign-registered lorries, parked up for a mandatory snooze. This is the Smart Motorway that is used on almost all journeys between the Channel Ports and points north of London and drivers unfamiliar with British roads make up a significant share of the traffic.

Extra signs have been put up, explaining the rules in detail in an attempt to deter non-emergency stops, but so far the message isn't getting through to non-English speakers. If the orange emergency areas are considered a success, the smart money says the next Smart Motorway to turn orange will be there.

A better sign

One feature of this trial that has been largely overlooked so far is the new road sign that accompanies the orange surface dressing. It's significant because it resembles signs in use across Europe for emergency lay-bys, and because it uses one clean, obvious symbol to convey its meaning. The reams of text appear to be on the way out.

The new sign should be very familiar to international drivers who will have encountered very similar designs next to emergency facilities on autostrade, autoroutes and autopistas. It should also be readily understood by drivers in the UK who might still be unsure about Smart Motorways and will be thankful for anything that offers clear information that can be digested in a couple of seconds. It shows an orange lay-by shape, matching the orange lay-by just behind it, with a telephone and the internationally-understood legend "SOS". What could be simpler?

By painting the emergency area itself a colour that is associated with emergency facilities, and designing a sign that indicates its purpose without words, this trial ironically stops this particular Smart Motorway feature looking like a trial, and instead makes it look like the finished production model.


Nicholas Lawley 3 August 2017

Although they are described as orange, these new bays are more amber than orange. If you compare the orange colour on the sign diagrams above, the shade used to cover the bays are more like the amber used on roadwork signage!

Trowbownian 10 August 2017

Lets hope HE installs a few on the A303 as I can see them working on A class roads but motorways? Hmm, it'd only work if the emergency layby is long enough to build up speed prior to joining the main carriageway.

Normally when a vehicle is to leave an Emergency Area the adjacent lane (lane 1) is closed to allow them to safely rejoin the carriageway

Mr Stickler Meeseeks 16 August 2017

"Motorways in the UK have never had lay-bys and they've never provided roadside facilities to stop for a rest" - perhaps the authors here are unfamiliar with the various MSAs (motorway service area) and motorway truck stops across the entire country?

We have heard of motorway service areas thanks, and I was once told a story around a campfire late at night by someone who had actually visited one of those mythical places. Perhaps one day I'll see one for myself!

Service areas and truck stops all require drivers to leave the motorway, even if only by a short distance. The point is that motorways do not have the equivalent of the roadside lay-bys that you find on non-motorway roads in the UK and sometimes on motorways overseas.

A very good point about service areas/stations. On getting near the service station there is a sign saying "end of motorway regulations", so they arent on the motorway!

Mr Stickler Meeseeks 16 August 2017

It's also good to see traffic sign obscuration - the temporary a-frame sign (50mph and average speed camera text / symbol) helps to block the driver's view should they wish to exit the lay-by in the image above. It's also clever the way the driver location sign is completely obscurred by the other temporary sign (the text about the CCTV in action). So if anyone wishes to report any issues at the location or similar (by quoting the reference on the driver location sign), they can't. Since this is supposed to be showing Highways England acting with thought and correct effort, they're shooting themselves in the foot with the images they're using. Did they know the images they're using aren't suitable, or did they, and just chose to go ahead regardless I wonder?

Allan 16 August 2017

Until the 1970s, motorway hard shoulders paved in a different colour to the main carriageway. Mostly shades of red, beige, green or white. So, this is going retro.

Gary L 17 August 2017

Soon to also appear on the M1 between J16-19!

Scott T 23 August 2017

These seem like an excellent idea. It's a shame they're not being rolled out already, especially on smart motorway projects currently under construction (I'm looking at you M60-M62).

I can also see them being very useful on certain A roads.

Graham Pearson 23 October 2017

"Emergency [Refuge] Areas have been called Emergency Laybys forever on the M90. I wonder why Highways England has seen fit to reinvent the same wheel twice!

(Incidentally, this means your statement that "Motorways in the UK have never had lay-bys" is only true if one excludes emergency laybys.)

See,-3.4364784,3a,75y,179.6h,83.67… for an example.

Hamakei 17 January 2022

Maybe they should put speakers in these refuge areas so that Highways England can talk directly to the motorists who pull in there. "Hello? What seems to be the problem? Do we need to send assistance?"

At the very least it'll discourage people who shouldn't be there.

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Picture credits

  • Photographs of the trial emergency area on the M3 are courtesy Highways England.

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