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News

Are smart motorways really that smart?

30 May, 2017

smart motorways template

The introduction of smart motorways was promised as a safer and cheaper alternative to the older motorway style. ‘Smart’ motorways have variable speed limits, which are designed to improve traffic at busy times by using ‘active traffic management’ (ATM), which also involves using the hard shoulder during busy times, or removing the hard shoulder entirely. The issue is, the hard shoulder is there for a reason, to allow emergency services quicker access, and to provide a place for broken down vehicles to pull over safely. If this is open to all traffic during the busiest times of the day, how is it possible to describe them as ‘smart’ when they provide little protection for the unfortunate?

What are smart motorways?

Smart motorways, previously called ‘managed motorways’, were first introduced in the UK in 2006 on the M42. Upon their introduction the road charity Brake said that such a scheme could be ‘potentially life-threatening’. Yet, since then they have since been extended to other major motorways such as the M1, M4, M62 and others. Highways England estimate that congestion costs around £2 billion a year to the economy, which the introduction of smart motorways aims to reduce. They exist as a cheaper cost cutting method for congestion, but also supposedly to benefit motorists who are stuck in traffic on a daily basis. Smart motorways manage the flow of traffic on an active basis using technology centred in a regional traffic control centre. Here they are able to pinpoint where traffic is building up through the use of cameras, and edit the speed limit and lanes to help with this. The government plans to convert more than 300 miles of Britain’s main motorways into smart lanes with no hard shoulder within the next nine years. However, the use of the hard shoulder as a ‘live lane’ creates a 200 per cent higher chance of collisions. Furthermore, a poll by breakdown company AA last year found that eight out of 10 drivers believe that smart motorways having no hard shoulder makes motorways more dangerous. Whilst it may be frustrating to be stuck in traffic day after day, surely that’s better than increasing the risk of death for motorists? Can you really put a price on safety? 

smart motorway

Refuge areas

Recent research by the RAC found that 52% of the 2000 drivers they surveyed did not know of the existence of emergency refuge areas. These are emergency lay-bys which are currently every one and a half miles on smart motorways. However, many don’t believe this is enough and argue that instead they should be at least every half mile so that drivers have a better chance of reaching them. Separate research by the RAC found that when a car developed a fault only 42% of drivers had managed to reach an emergency refuge area, such as this driver who lost a tire and was forced to drive on 3 wheels, suggesting that they are indeed too far apart. Furthermore, 64% of those studied in the RAC’s recent research were unsure what they were supposed to do after stopping in a refuge area, and another 65% admitted they didn’t know how to re-join. Some believed that you just had to wait for a gap in the traffic and accelerate rapidly. Only one respondent was aware that when re-joining you should call Highways England so that they can stop the flow of traffic to the live lane and make it safe for you to re-join. This lack of awareness demonstrates that whilst Highways England (who manage smart motorways) may have put certain protections in place, there isn’t enough information provided to make the public aware. In addition, whilst these protections are in place, they aren’t necessarily enough. If your car is breaking down, you don’t always have the warning needed to be able to drive a mile and a half to the nearest refuge point. Not only that, but if the weather is bad, will you be able to see the nearest refuge point, and if not, will other vehicles be able to see you when you’re stopped in lane rather than on a hard shoulder? 

foggy motorway

Emergency access

Another danger with the design of smart motorways is the lack of access for emergency vehicles. Whilst the constant monitoring from regional traffic control centres is supposed to allow for lanes to be closes when emergency vehicles require access, there is always likely to be a delay to this. In order to close a lane, you have to direct the traffic that is already in the lane out of the lane, and this isn’t an instant process. Instead it means that the emergency services have to weave in and out of traffic, rather than having a clear path. Keeping the hard shoulder free for emergency vehicles allows for much quicker access as it gives them that clear path, as they do not have to wait for the lane to fully clear away.

Is this really the ‘smart’ way of doing things?

Without constant access for emergency vehicles, or a safe space to stop after a breakdown, how can these motorways be considered a better alternative? For many, smart motorways are a scary prospect to drive on. The potential of having nowhere to pull over, except to a lane that is largely dominated by lorries and other large vehicles, or to a refuge area that could be up to a mile and a half away, is terrifying for many. If you have to pull over into the ‘live lane’, how do you get out quickly enough? Also, it’s one thing getting yourself out, what about if you have kids in the back? Unfortunately, people have indeed died as a result of this issue, and it’s difficult to understand why a better alternative cannot be created. Highways England need to at least introduce more regular refuge points if they are to go ahead with their plan for 300 more miles of smart motorways in the next 9 years. If not, they are likely to have (more) blood on their hands.