October 24, 2019

Not So Smart After All?

Dynamic Smart Motorways Building to be Stopped

Certain motorways, called dynamic smart motorways, allow the hard shoulder to be used as a running lane in times of high congestion. The function was introduced in a bid to ease traffic flow, without having the expense of widening the roads to add another lane. However, it’s been revealed by Highways England that this arrangement is ‘too complicated for people to use’ and no more roads will have this measure applied to them.

What is a smart motorway?

A smart motorway involves the use of a system of sensors, cameras and overhead gantries which can monitor the volume and flow of traffic.  The computerised system controls this flow by means of instructions to drivers delivered on huge digital sign boards placed at the side of or over the road.

There are three types of smart motorway in use:

  • About 135 miles of roads use the all lane running model. This system has no hard shoulder at all, but includes occasional lay-by’s or ‘emergency refuge areas’.
  • Controlled motorways have kept the hard shoulder for emergency use and employ variable speed limits delivered by the gantry sign system. There are around 120 miles of this type of motorway.
  • The Dynamic smart motorways design is currently in use on sections of the M1, M4, M5, M6, M42 and M62, adding up to about 68 miles total.

Hard shoulder use

Ever since motorways were first introduced the ‘hard shoulder’ or emergency lane as it’s sometimes called, which is on the far left of the road, has been used for just that – emergencies. Usually for breakdowns, bumps, drivers feeling unwell or other immediate problems, the hard shoulder has provided a place to pull up off the busy lanes in relative safety.

Since the inception of the dynamic smart motorways and the hard shoulder being used as an expansion lane for driving use, there has been confusion about when the lane is open for use and when it’s not.

Confusion and deaths

Reporting to the House of Commons’ Transport Select Committee, Highways England agency head Jim O’Sullivan told MP’s that drivers are often unsure of when the hard shoulder is open for use or when it’s purely for emergencies. This is despite advice being available for drivers on how to use these roads safely and legally.

He said that those who normally only use a dynamic smart motorway to commute at busy times are familiar with using the hard shoulder as a live lane and can automatically assume it’s open the rest of the time too.

Mr O’Sullivan also said that, alternatively, some drivers will stop there when it’s in use as a running lane.

He further commented that the use of the lane as a live lane tends to be lower than was initially expected because drivers are unsure whether it was a running lane or an emergency lane.

In the last 12 months, at least four people have died on the M1 as a result of being hit by traffic using the hard shoulder as a live lane. All four drivers had pulled into that lane as a result of either a breakdown or a minor collision.


The Highways England agency have said that they are considering altering dynamic smart motorways to use the all lane running system instead.

However, Highways England appears not to have done any research into whether this system is any more or less safe than traditional hard shoulder motorways. Mr O’Sullivan is quoted as saying: ‘I am persuaded that the difference is so slight that we would have not looked into it.’

The conclusion from the Highways England agency is that they are unlikely to be building any more of the dynamic style of smart motorway as they’re just too confusing to use safely.