April 28, 2020

The Future of Smart Motorways

The End of the Road for Smart Motorways?

Smart Motorways were first introduced to the UK in 2010 and have since proven to be not nearly as clever as their name may suggest.

Condemnation for the ‘upgrades’ – borne out of increased fatalities and near misses – has been growing amongst road users and safety groups and it seems they are now being listened to. In February the matter was brought to debate in the House of Lords by Baroness McIntosh of Pickering and received widespread support.

However, having invested heavily into the scheme and brought widespread disruption to road users for years whilst building smart motorways, it would appear the government is not yet ready to give up on them. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announcing in March that rather than rewinding the clock on smart motorways, the government wants to “raise the bar” on smart motorway safety.

So where does this leave motorists? We’ve put together a short summary to smart motorways to help explain what is in place and what improvements the government has set out.

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 two main types of smart motorway in use; the all lane running model which has no hard shoulder at all, but includes occasional lay-by’s or ‘emergency refuge areas’. The second is controlled motorways where the hard shoulder is only opened up when traffic is busy.

The concept is that if a driver suffers a breakdown on a smart motorway, then there should be somewhere to stop immediately or within a very short distance so that the vehicle will be able to make it.

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.

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What changes have been set out?

The plan laid out by the government is composed of two key changes. Firstly, opening motorway hard shoulders in busy periods will be scrapped.

Secondly, on smart motorways where the hard shoulder has been removed entirely, decrease the distance a vehicle will need to travel in an emergency refuge by building more of them. The aim being to make distance between stops no more than ¾ of a mile – this in line with the original pilot schemes which were determined to be as safe as existing motorways.

Additional measures announced by the government include:

  • A £5m communications plan to better educate road users about how to use smart motorways safely
  • Increased visibility of emergency areas and signs displaying the distances to the next stop
  • Better detection of stopped vehicles through the deployment of new technology

Will these changes make a difference? While the government and some campaigners are convinced so, there are some in opposition who don’t feel the changes still do not go far enough.