Smart Motorways: Are they a trade-off between smart and safe?

In the first of a series of articles on road safety, Drivetech Managing Director Charlie Norman examines the findings of the Government’s recent view of Smart motorways following safety concerns and argues that re-educating motorists is crucial to reducing the number of deaths and injuries on the road.

The daily sight of deserted roads during the UK’s extended lockdown has become so familiar that it’s easy to forget the sight of rush hour traffic and crowded motorways – and the very lively public debate around smart motorways that prompted a government review that concluded just a few weeks ago.

The AA is well placed to see how people have been put at unnecessary risk of entirely avoidable collisions, serious injuries and deaths.”

The results of that review, commissioned by Grant Shapps, Secretary of State at the Department for Transport, should be welcomed by the police and motoring public alike as they signal a rethink of a policy that was placing motorists, not least the police officers who respond to incidents on fast roads, at risk. Edmund King, president of the AA, our parent company, has been a prominent champion of the cause – urging a government rethink in the interests of breakdown recovery workers, emergency responders and the wider British motoring public. The AA is well placed to see how people have been put at unnecessary risk of entirely avoidable collisions, serious injuries and deaths which many have blamed on certain aspects of the smart motorway format.

The West Midland trials
The original trials of smart motorways in the West Midlands (M42) in 2006 focused mainly on variable control over maximum legal speeds on motorway sections with CCTV and other monitoring technology to assess the weight and flow of traffic real-time.
This was complemented by a capability to vary the lane availability and speeds to ensure a smooth and non-congested traffic flow. With a general capacity issue on Britain’s roads, including motorways – especially at peak periods – considerations about opening up the hard shoulder to be an open running lane (at times) were also part of the plans to increase capacity, without significant and more disruptive carriageway-widening construction work, not to mention huge cost.
Looking back, the consensus view is that, at that time, things took an inadvertent twist and decisions were made in the implementation of the scheme that subsequently created additional risks, both to the motorist and those who deal with incidents.

To be conscious of the fact that a vehicle may be fast approaching (at up to 70 mph legally) a stationary vehicle in that very lane is pretty shocking, and a real risk to life.”

Removing the hard shoulder
Firstly, with the opening up of the hard shoulder (traditionally and in the British consciousness a safety run off and refuge for breakdowns) to all lanes running, the planners needed to include regular Emergency Refuge Areas (ERAs) for this purpose – but they are expensive to build and it seems that corners were cut and on typical current construction, these are spaced a significant distance apart.
As we all know, motorists don’t naturally plan their breakdowns, nor do they find these ERAs conveniently or easily in a moment of panic and concern. Hence, vehicles currently are far too often stranded in a live running lane. Anyone who has broken down on the hard shoulder knows that the proximity to fast moving traffic is scary enough, but to be conscious of the fact that a vehicle may be fast approaching (at up to 70 mph legally) a stationary vehicle in that very lane is pretty shocking, and a real risk to life.

The progressive reduction in roads policing resources over the last decade has compounded an already unfortunate situation.”

Secondly, the resource and equipment to remotely monitor these stretches of smart motorways real-time have been found to be less than ‘24/7’ in places, and with a response time to respond to a stranded vehicle of around 17 minutes where operational and functioning, there’s an inadequate response to the vulnerable motorist in his or her moment of real need. Needless to say, the progressive reduction in roads policing resources over the last decade has compounded an already unfortunate situation.
We, therefore, welcome the Secretary of State’s intervention as a breakthrough for common-sense. The Government appears to have listened and studied the evidence – and will now take steps to improve the infrastructure and the effectiveness of newly-specified smart motorways.
The two key promised improvements are to be the shortening of distance between ERAs to enable a troubled motorist to get to safety quicker, combined with a much more precise and permanent monitoring of the network to identify and respond to a hazard with significantly greater urgency, and to trigger clear advance signage to approaching road users of the hazard ahead.

Re-education needed
Our experience at DriveTech tells us one key additional thing is needed – and this is the regular and important education (and re-education) of motorists so they are in effect briefed and fully trained on this new motorway phenomenon in advance of learning ‘on the job’ when a crisis on road presents itself. What do the advance signs mean? Can I ignore a Red X for a short while before moving lane? Should I be more wary of potential breakdowns on a live running lane? And should I just generally make sure I concentrate on the drive and the road ahead avoiding any modern distractions? Of course, to highly skilled and trained police drivers, the answers to these questions are obvious – but to most motorists, who have received no top-up driving instruction since their driving test – this changing road environment has never been explained.

After years of reductions, the number of people being killed on the roads has reached a plateau and started to creep back upwards.”

The most welcome thing about the recent public discourse is the resurgence of road safety as an important policy issue that is receiving attention. After years of reductions, the number of people being killed on the roads has reached a plateau and started to creep back upwards. A concerted and co-ordinated partnership effort is called for to reverse this trend.
Fast roads are essential to our society and economy, but they can also be dangerous: the re-assessment of smart motorways is key to helping reduce this danger, and DriveTech is fully supportive of this and further ongoing activity to ensure road safety stays high on the national agenda working both with our parent company, the AA but also with police forces and road safety partnerships across the UK.

DriveTech is a safety organisation with an on-road focus that helps drivers remain safe on the roads, supporting commercial businesses with their duty of care and legal obligations towards employed drivers, and also delivering police-referred driver offender courses on behalf of a large number of UK police forces.

You can read more about the Government’s review of SMART motorways here


Back to news and resources