Smart motorways — not that smart?

Philafrenzy, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Smart motorways have the potential to solve a lot of problems — for motorists, the Treasury and the environment. Yet, for their many critics, they’re simply not safe. In this two-part post, we’ll look at both sides of the smart motorway issue.

Frankly, the UK motorway system is a mess. When its designers pored over maps in the 1950s, they could never have envisaged the volume and speed of traffic that motorways now has to carry. For years, a chronic lack of capacity has blighted our motorway journeys, leading to millions of hours wasted in slow-moving traffic and tailbacks. But fixing the problem is far from straightforward. Widening our existing motorways, or building new ones, comes with a huge financial and environmental price tag.

Smart motorways are intended as an innovative solution to this decades-old problem. Rather than building or expanding motorways, they address the capacity problem by using the existing ones more efficiently. By being more flexible in how traffic is managed, the theory goes, congestion and snarl-ups can both be radically reduced.

Putting these ideas into practice has, as the RAC explains, resulted in three types of smart motorway.

  • All lane running schemes. Here, there is no hard shoulder at all. The existing hard shoulder is used as an additional fully-functioning driving lane. Variable speed limits are also in force.
  • Dynamic hard shoulder schemes. The hard shoulder is used as a driving lane as circumstances requires. Again, variable speed limits are applied.
  • Controlled motorway schemes. The motorway retains a permanent hard shoulder, but variable speed limits are used.

All schemes rely largely on CCTV to monitor current conditions. Using this, control centres make decisions about changing speed limits, closing a lane, or when to change the hard shoulder into a driving lane (in dynamic schemes). Drivers are then alerted to any changes by gantry and roadside signs. However, as technology progresses, we can expect to see increasing numbers of vehicles  receiving automatic alerts from the smart motorway infrastructure.

And all of this sounds — well, a smarter way of doing things. If a smart motorway can make journeys faster, without costing the earth (in both senses), isn’t that the perfect solution?

Well, maybe. Unfortunately, there’s one huge question hanging over the smart motorway scheme: how safe are they?

Smart motorways and safety

Let’s say you’re tootling along your favourite traditional motorway when suddenly one of your tyres blows out. If you can’t make it to an exit, you head for the hard shoulder and follow the usual safety procedures. Granted, the hard shoulder is an uncomfortable, dangerous place to be, but at least it’s some sort of refuge until help arrives.

But what happens if you breakdown on a smart motorway with no hard shoulder? No problem, say the designers. Just make your way to the nearest Emergency Refuge Area (ERA). These pull-ins are equipped with an emergency telephone, and you can wait safely there. Except that most drivers either don’t know ERAs even exist, or don’t know to use them properly. In fact, in a 2017 survey by the RAC, only one person surveyed knew that drivers are supposed to phone the Highways Agency before rejoining the motorway!

Supporters of the scheme argue that this problem will decrease over time. Gradually, smart motorways will become familiar and driver education will improve. But that still leaves a much greater issue: what if your vehicle just won’t make it to the next available ERA? If there’s no hard shoulder, you could find yourself stuck in a driving lane with nowhere to run.

That sounds like a recipe for disaster, and sure enough, there have been a number of fatal collisions involving stationary vehicles trapped on smart motorways. One tragic, high-profile case involved the Neeran family. In 2018, 8 year old Dev Naran was killed when his grandfather’s car stopped on the dynamic hard shoulder of a smart motorway. The car had been stationary for just 45 seconds when it was struck by an HGV.

In theory, CCTV operators can shut any lane quickly, alerting drivers through gantry signs. In general, it’s down to an operator to spot that there’s a problem and close the lane — and where a human being has to monitor multiple video feeds simultaneously, mistakes seem inevitable. A few sections of motorway also use stopped vehicle detection systems, and these may help. However, even when a problem is spotted promptly, other drivers immediately behind the stopped vehicle have very little time to react.

Earlier this year, BBC Panorama reported that 38 people have been killed on smart motorways over a five year period. Figures also showed that when a section of hard shoulder was removed from the M25, the number of near-misses increased — again, over a five year period — from 72 to 1,485.

Small wonder, perhaps, that there’s a significant lack of public confidence in smart motorways. One survey showed that 72% of drivers were worried about not reaching an ERA in time). In response, the Government carried out an all-party review of the smart motorway scheme.

In Part Two, we’ll look at what they concluded. We’ll also look at the flip side of the coin, the case in favour of smart motorways.

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