General Guides | How smart are smart motorways?

How smart are smart motorways? MP’s demand safety review

Tue, 21 December 2021

Protestors surrounded the houses of parliament on Monday 1st November carrying 38 cardboard coffins.

Each one represented a life lost on Britain’s so-called “smart motorways”, which do away with the hard shoulder to ease traffic congestion.

Why is this motorway safety feature being phased out, and will a group of politicians succeed in reversing the trend towards speed over safety?

smart motorway

What are smart motorways?

A smart motorway is a section of a motorway that uses digital variable speed controls and may use the hard shoulder as an extra traffic lane to increase capacity and reduce traffic congestion.

They were designed to increase the traffic flow.

What types of smart motorway are there?

There are three different types of Smart Motorways: ‘All lane running’ schemes with no hard shoulder, ‘Dynamic hard shoulder’ schemes and ‘Controlled motorway’ schemes with a full-time hard shoulder.

All lane running schemes removes the hard shoulder transforming the hard shoulder into a lane for traffic. On this type of motorway should there be an accident the lane will have a red X appearing above the lane.

Dynamic hard shoulder: running involves opening the hard shoulder as a running lane to traffic at busy periods to ease congestion. On these stretches a solid white line differentiates the hard shoulder from the normal carriageway. Overhead signs on gantries indicate whether the hard shoulder is open to traffic.

Controlled motorways have three or more lanes with variable speed limits but retain a traditional hard shoulder. The hard shoulder should only be used in a genuine emergency.

How long have smart motorways existed?

Controlled motorways were introduced on the M25 in the 1990s. Nowadays almost the entire route around London is made up of either controlled or all-lane running sections.

Why did the government introduce smart motorways and what have the benefits been?

Highways England (previously the Highways Agency) developed smart motorways to manage traffic and to minimise environmental impact, cost, and time to construct by avoiding the need to build additional lanes.

Highways England state since the first smart motorway opened in 2006 journey reliability has improved by 22% and personal injury accidents have been reduced by more than half. In a written statement to parliament, Mr Shapps (secretary of state for transport) added that smart motorways had helped the country cope with a 23% rise in traffic since 2000.

“They save motorists thousands of hours sitting in jams,” wrote Shapps. “They reduce the disruption and environmental destruction which would otherwise be needed to widen our busiest roads.

Why are people against them and what has the downside been?

Many people are against smart motorways as 38 lives have been lost due to drivers not having a safe place to pull over. Claire Mercer, whose husband, Jason, died on a smart motorway in 2019, welcomed the plans to be paused stating “That will give us more time to get into the High Court and get these banned anyway”.

In five years, there were 72 near misses. Since the motorways have been changed there has been 1485 near misses. A near miss is counted when there is potential to cause an injury or ill health. Janet Savage, 60, said she joined the demonstration after getting a flat tyre on a smart motorway several months ago. “We couldn’t get off anywhere and it was the most terrifying thing in my life.”

Emergency refuge areas can be spread across 1.6km causing huge concern and desperation to find a safe place to pull over. The AA suggests it takes an average of 17 minutes for highway authorities to spot a stopped vehicle, and then another 17 minutes for emergency vehicles to reach the scene.

“You spend an average of more than half an hour sitting there in a broken-down vehicle praying,” said the AA. Smart motorways land huge confusion to drivers as they are unsure whether they can or can’t use the hard shoulder.

The Police also disagree with the system as the force has complained that there is nowhere to pull over reckless drivers. With no hard shoulder, officers are forced to drive for ‘miles and miles’ before apprehending culprits. An RAC survey in November found that just 9% of the more than 17,000 people questioned that they felt relaxed or safe driving on a smart motorway.

How are people protesting and trying to end them?

What about the protestors who surrounded the houses of parliament on Monday 1st November in protest over the concept of smart motorways? They carried 38 cardboard coffins representing the lives lost. Were their calls for better safety heeded?

Smart motorways have been heavily criticised due to lack of safety. Many people have raised their concern over the danger of hard shoulders being used as traffic lanes due to vehicles being hit from behind causing various fatal accidents. Demonstrators have displayed their emotion due to the many families affected and lives lost caused by people being trapped in the speeding traffic.

MPs committee demands halt for safety review

The Parliamentary Transport Committee reviewing smart motorways demanded a halt to all further building in early November.

‘The Government decision in March 2020 that all smart motorways would be all-lane-running motorways was premature,’ reports the parliamentary committee website. Numerous fatal accidents were caused due to no hard shoulder and all lanes on the motorway being live, causing panic on the roads. ‘MPs call on Government to pause the rollout of all-lane running Smart Motorways until five years of safety and economic data is available and safety improvements have been delivered and independently evaluated,’ the website continues.

The communication of this radical change has been heavily criticised leaving many drivers on the road confused on what to do if they were to break down on a smart motorway.

The parliamentary website concludes:

‘The Minister for Roads described England’s all-lane-running Smart Motorways as ‘the most scrutinised 141 miles of road in the world’. It is right we do so because lives have been lost and many motorists feel unsafe using them. More action is needed to demonstrate their worth.

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