Drivers who ignore smart motorway lane closures could be fined from March, the Press Association has learnt.
Highways England believes ignoring red X signs on overhead gantries is ‘dangerous’ and expects penalties to be introduced next spring.
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It has issued around 80,000 warning letters to drivers who have broken smart motorway rules since December 2016, with around a third relating to driving in closed lanes.
Road-side cameras which automatically detect lane violations are ‘currently being tested by the Home Office’, the government-owned company wrote in a document seen by the Press Association.
‘We would expect enforcement of red X offences to commence from spring 2018,’ it added.
Incidents could be treated like passing through a red traffic light, which carries a fixed penalty of £100 and three penalty points.
Smart motorways involve using the hard shoulder for traffic unless a red X indicates it is closed, normally because of an accident or broken down vehicle.
Sections of the M1, M4, M5, M6 and M42 have already been modified, with 480 lane miles being added to England’s motorway network.
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Steve Gooding, director of motoring research charity the RAC Foundation, warned the extra capacity is ‘a welcome move, only so long as it can be delivered safely’.
He said: ‘The best laws are those that no-one breaks, not just because the penalties for doing so are severe but also because they are well understood and accepted.
‘We need to see a redoubling of communications by Highways England to leave no doubt in motorists’ minds as to what a red X sign means.
‘It’s important that drivers understand that where the carriageway has been blocked by a collision or a breakdown, the price for ignoring the red X could be a lot higher than a fixed penalty notice.’
A Highways England spokesman said: ‘Safety is at the heart of everything we do and our roads are among the safest in the world.
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‘We close lanes for a reason and drivers ignoring red Xs puts them and others at risk.
‘Since we started issuing warning letters we have seen a decrease in the number of drivers ignoring lane closures.’
Motoring groups have raised concerns about the spacing of emergency refuge areas on smart motorways.
Highways England guidance is for the lay-bys to be no more than around 1.5 miles apart, but campaigners believe this distance should be at least halved to reduce the chances of a broken down vehicle stopping in a live running lane.
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