Smart Motorways Are Stupid

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

If you are unfortunate enough to break down on a motorway, you try and get to the hard shoulder and then phone for assistance. However, if you are on a so called “smart" motorway, there is no hard shoulder. If you are lucky you may make it to an emergency refuge area, but if not you have to pull over and get out before a 40 ton truck crushes your car like a tin can.

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.

Controlled motorways: these are traditional motorways which can’t use the hard shoulder as an extra lane, but do use variable speed limits.

Dynamic hard shoulder: these use variable speed limits and make use of the hard shoulder, but only when traffic levels are particularly high.

All lane running: these use variable speed limits and have had their hard shoulder converted to an extra lane.

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:

  • Never drive in a lane closed by a Red X.
  • 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.

Following the death of two men in 2019, a campaign has been set up called “Smart Motorways Kill”. The aim is to bring a judicial review against Highways England to have smart motorways banned. They are also looking to see if there is a case for disability discrimination.

One of the main criticisms of smart motorways is the lack of safe zones where a driver can pull over. The trial scheme on the M42 had emergency refuge areas every 0.3 miles but some are now 1.5 miles apart.

The AA, the RAC and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents all expressed concerns regarding the removal of the hard shoulder, and how breakdowns could be dealt with safely.

Even the Police Federation of England and Wales chief was reported to have said he did not “like the term smart motorways because it infers they are a good idea. They’re anything but and a recipe for disaster. It’s a death trap. It’s inherently dangerous and putting lives at risk”.

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:

  • All new smart motorways to have the distance between emergency refuge areas reduced from 1.5 miles to a maximum of 1 mile.
  • 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 always try to keep my car in good condition and have it serviced regularly, but I know breakdowns and accidents can happen to anyone. If I was to have a fault with my car on a smart motorway, and between refuge points, I would be extremely concerned. If I was able I would get out through the passenger side and over the barrier as quickly as possible.

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