Smart Motorways: Why the Brakes Have Been Put On

Posted by Simon R 20/01/2022 0 Comment(s)

The government has paused the rollout of smart motorways until more safety data is available, amid claims they have contributed to road deaths. Campaigners have welcomed the decision to suspend the plans to convert four more stretches of motorway.

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The announcement follows a Department of Transport report last year, in which MPs concluded they were "not convinced" the benefits were enough to justify the safety risks. The project is being postponed until five full years' safety data is available.

Schemes already up and running will still be completed, with existing stretches of smart motorways remaining in operation. However, £390 million of public funds will be spent on creating more roadside refuge areas and installing new technology to detect stationary vehicles, so they don't become a traffic hazard.
 


What is a smart motorway?

A smart motorway uses technology to ease congestion and regulate the flow of traffic. Overhead gantries are used to direct drivers. When there is congestion, or if there's a hazard ahead, variable speed limits are introduced. Speed cameras control these limits.

There are three main categories of smart motorways. Controlled motorways have a permanent hard shoulder but use the latest technology to adjust and control the traffic flow, including variable speed limits.

Dynamic motorways permit the hard shoulder to be opened to use at peak times as an extra lane to relieve congestion. When this occurs, the speed limit on that stretch is reduced from 70mph to 60mph.

All-lane running motorways don't have a hard shoulder, as it has been removed permanently, providing an extra lane for traffic. Instead, emergency refuge areas have been installed at regular intervals, so vehicles that have a problem can be safely parked.

All three models use overhead gantries. On the dynamic smart motorways, the gantries will also inform drivers whether they are permitted to drive on the hard shoulder. If a red "X" is displayed, it means the lane ahead is closed. This may happen in the event of an accident, or a broken-down car. Traffic is monitored by CCTV.

Motorists with a problem are advised to head for the emergency refuge areas at the side of the motorway.



Smart motorway criticism

Campaigners against smart motorways consider them to be dangerous. The main risk is that a vehicle may break down suddenly, or have a collision with another car, leaving drivers stranded in a live traffic lane. Where there's no hard shoulder, they have nowhere to go.

Some traffic accidents have been blamed on the smart motorways system. According to the investigative TV programme, Panorama, government figures in 2020 revealed 38 people had died on smart motorways between 2014 and 2019.

The Commons' Transport Committee showed the number of fatalities on motorways without a hard shoulder increased from five in 2017 to 15 in 2019. However, the size of the smart motorway network had also increased in this period.

Other research into stretches of motorway without a hard shoulder (known as "all-lane running") showed the number of overall casualties had gone down, despite the rise in fatal injuries. As all-lane running motorways haven't been in use for very long, the government has decided there isn't enough data to make an informed decision on their safety.

New research by motoring organisation the RAC found the majority of people favoured bringing back the hard shoulder on all motorways. However, the hard shoulder is a safety risk itself, with one in 12 motorway fatalities occurring there.

Statistically, there are fewer casualties on motorways than on urban and rural roads, despite the higher speeds. When it comes to smart motorways, controlled models, where the speed limits vary, are not deemed to be the problem. They are safer than any other kind.

The main question is whether smart motorways with no hard shoulder at all are more dangerous than conventional motorways.
 


Advantages of smart motorways

The main advantage of smart motorways is the fact they can reduce congestion, without spending a lot of money on expanding the existing motorway network. The smart concept is aimed at improving journeys at a lower cost by enhancing what we already have. Making relatively minor changes to the current motorway network, such as creating another lane from the hard shoulder, is being combined with smart technology to give motorists a better journey.

Smart motorways are also aimed at reducing emissions, as vehicles queuing in congested traffic use extra fuel, impacting the planet's wellbeing, not to mention our wallets. Congestion also causes stress to drivers, so keeping the traffic flowing smoothly can be better for our health.

Currently, there are around 400 miles of smart motorways already in action in England. Some 200 miles of these don't have a permanent hard shoulder. The government announcement of the postponement means the 100 miles of smart motorways already under construction will be completed.

However, other planned conversions have been shelved for now. Proposed work will be suspended on the M40/M42 interchange, the M3 between junctions nine and 14, the M25 between junctions ten and 16 and the M62 between junctions 20 and 25.

The ruling applies to smart motorways in England, as the responsibility for motorways in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is devolved.



Origins of smart motorways

The first sections of controlled motorways in the UK were introduced as a pilot scheme on the M25 in the 1990s. Today, almost the entire motorway route around London comprises either controlled or all-lane running sections.

Dynamic sections are more prevalent along the M6 and the M42 in the Midlands and on the M62 outside Bradford and Leeds. However, the plan is to eventually phase out the dynamic sections and replace them with all-lane running motorways instead.

Campaigners have welcomed the move to postpone the introduction of more smart motorways until more data is available. However, they say they want all motorways to have a hard shoulder in use 24/7 and have pledged to carry on campaigning for this reinstatement, regardless of the outcome of the data-gathering.

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