Highways England must raise the visibility of smart motorway emergency refuge areas “as soon as possible” and educate drivers on what the Red X sign means, according to Transport Focus.

The call follows a  survey from the transport watchdog , published this week, which found low level driver awareness of the existence of refuge areas on all lane running schemes.

It also found driver uncertainty about what to do if they break down in these areas, and poor understanding of what the Red X sign means.

The survey also found that whilst most drivers are “broadly positive about smart motorways”, they expressed frustration at “inappropriate” variable speed limits, which they perceive to increase rather than decrease congestion.

The research paper, dubbed Getting to the heart of smart: road user experiences of smart motorways, echoes concerns raised last year by the House of Commons Transport Committee around the safety of smart motorways.

Smart motorways use variable speed limits to manage traffic and involve converting the hard shoulder into an extra traffic lane, known as all lane running.

The paper calls on Highways England to make it clearer to road users when the hard shoulder should and should not be used by using a green arrow as well as a Red X sign.

It also urges Highways England to raise the visibility of emergency refuge areas “as quickly as possible” by marking them with orange surfaces and installing more noticeable signage.

Highways England is currently trialling new signage for refuge areas and orange surfaces on the M25 and M3. The trial is part of an ongoing review into the design and spacing of ERAs on smart motorways that is due to report this autumn.

The report also recommends Highways England use speed limits “appropriate to the traffic conditions, in particular guarding against reducing speed unnecessarily and minimising the perception that speed limits are causing congestion rather than reducing it”.

Transport Focus chief executive Anthony Smith said: ‘The message to Highways England is that many millions of drivers successfully use smart motorways, but there is more to do to improve their understanding of how they work and what you should do if you break down.

‘Road users tend to trust that “the authorities” would not allow motorways without a hard shoulder if it was unsafe. Highways England must remain vigilant that their trust is not misplaced.’

Highways England chief highways engineer Mike Wilson said: ‘We recognise motorists need to be confident using smart motorways, and are already making improvements such as improving signs and painting emergency areas bright orange.

"We also have an ongoing campaign aimed at improving understanding and making it clearer where drivers can stop in an emergency.”