Smart Motorways Are Stupid

How can removing a safety lane be a smart idea?

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Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

What are smart motorways?

In the UK a traditional motorway has three lanes for traffic and one narrow lane for emergencies, known as the hard shoulder. Initially motorways only had fixed metal signs to indicate destinations, but with the advent of technology, various forms of electronic traffic management has gradually been added. These include programmable signs, traffic monitoring cameras and speed cameras. There are now three different types of motorway, based around how they utilise the hard shoulder.

When were they first introduced?

The first trial combining reduced speed limits (50mph) and hard shoulder running, took place in 2006 on the M42 in the West Midlands. Another test was carried out in 2008 using a higher maximum speed of 60mph. The Highways Agency started to use the term “smart motorway” to promote the scheme from 2013.

Why were they created?

It is obviously extremely expensive to add an additional lane to an existing motorway, but with the increase in traffic, something needed to be done. By using the hard shoulder extra capacity could be generated, and at a lot lower cost. By using variable speed limits it was hoped that traffic flow would be smoother, meaning less noise, less pollution and fewer collisions.

How are you meant to use them?

Normal motorway rules still apply, but the GOV.UK website does list the following tips:

  • Keep to the speed limits shown on the signs.
  • A hard shoulder is always identified by a solid white unbroken line — if there’s no speed limit displayed above it or a Red X is displayed, do not use it except in emergency.
  • A broken white line indicates a normal running lane.
  • If the hard shoulder is being used as an extra lane, use the designated emergency areas for emergencies.
  • If your vehicle experiences difficulties, eg. warning light, exit the motorway immediately, if you can.
  • If you break down, put your hazard lights on.
  • Most breakdowns are preventable — keep your car well maintained, check your tyres and make sure you have enough fuel for your journey.

Are they safe?

At the beginning of 2020 it was reported that there had been a big increase in the number of near misses, and that 38 people had been killed on smart motorways over five years.

Will they be improved?

Following the numerous criticisms, safety concerns, near misses and fatal accidents, all smart motorways were put under review in January 2020. In March the review and action plan were published. The main points were:

  • Stranded vehicle detection radars to be installed on all new projects.
  • Dynamic hard shoulder motorways to be converted to all lane running motorways by 2025.
  • Stranded vehicle detection radars to be installed on all smart motorways within three years.
  • Faster attendance by more Highways England patrols, with the aim to reduce attendance times from 17 to 10 minutes.
  • Emergency refuge areas to be made more visible with a bright orange surface, better signs on approach and signs inside explaining what to do in an emergency.
  • A national campaign to increase awareness and understanding of smart motorways and how to use them.
  • An update to the Highway Code.
  • Work with sat-nav providers to add places to stop in an emergency.

My personal opinion

Although I have been driving for 35 years, I have not done many motorway miles. I live in Cornwall and we don’t have any motorways at all. When I do travel up country for work or pleasure, I do get a bit nervous driving on motorways. The amount of traffic, the high average speed, the number of road works and the abundance of signs makes me glad I live where I do.

I am a Cornish design engineer who likes writing, reading, photography, technology, nature, history, cars, aeroplanes, motorbikes and all things Cornish.

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