Are Smart Motorways Safe?

At present, there are 500 miles of smart motorways in the UK, with a further 300 miles planned by 2025. Smart motorways are sections of the motorway that use technology to reduce congestion, though they have received a lot of negative press. There are major concerns about the safety of smart motorways, with 38 fatalities caused in the last five years.

However, the intentions for smart motorways were good, as they ease congestion and reduce carbon emissions. But smart motorways are in need of technical improvements such as better monitors to spot broken down vehicles. We take a look at the rules of smart motorways, what to do if you break down on a smart motorway, what charities think and what the future holds.

What is the government doing to improve the safety of smart motorways?

Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, acknowledges that smart motorways can be dangerous. He announced that vehicle detection technology must be installed on all future all-lane running smart motorways.

Anthony Smith, CEO of Transport Focus, commented: “We know road users are concerned about safety when they think what would happen if they broke down on a motorway with no hard shoulder. So we welcome this package of improvements including more technology to detect breakdowns quickly and for there to be extra effort to spread the word about what to do if you break down.”

Breakdown detection technology improvements were scheduled to be installed on smart motorways by 2025, but this has now been pushed forward to 2022.

Are there any benefits to smart motorways?

There are a few advantages of smart motorways, as they come with additional protection measures. This includes electronic signs for lane closures and warning messages, as well as increased CCTV coverage and sensors to detect traffic speed and flow.

However, we can’t ignore the growing numbers of fatalities on smart motorways – the evidence is clear. Roadpeace member, Claire Mercer, is campaigning against smart motorways after her husband was killed on a smart motorway. She said to Roadpeace: “I knew I wanted to fight the removal of the hard shoulder through legal channels, not for compensation, but to get the law changed so it couldn’t be done anymore but I didn’t know any of the terminology and how to go about it. Eventually, I found out that what I needed to do was bring a ‘judicial review’ against Highways England and the Government using a law firm that dealt with public law.”

Quentin Underhill, Serious Injury Partner at Birchall Blackburn Law, commented: “The government presented the idea as safe and necessary to cope with the increase in traffic on motorways and have spent millions on the motorway upgrade. Intentions were very good as the idea was to free up another lane, the hard shoulder to reduce congestion but sadly the practicalities are that if you have to stop on a motorway if you break down, as you’ve got nowhere else to go with cars approaching at 70 + MPH, it’s so dangerous. The radar technology to detect stopped vehicles won’t all be in place until September 2022. Sadly, there have been a number of fatal collisions on smart motorways and the Government must ensure that safety measures are put in place urgently to avoid any more tragedy. The idea of smart motorways is a good one and with good intentions but safety cannot be sacrificed and changes need to be made very urgently to prevent unnecessary deaths and serious injury.”

What are the rules of smart motorways?

Recent data published by road safety charity Brake shows 48% of road users in the UK aren’t aware of the rules of smart motorways. A further 25% of people didn’t know what a smart motorway was.

There are, in fact, three different types of smart motorway:

  • Controlled: A motorway with three or more lanes, a hard shoulder and variable speed limits
  • All Lane Running (ALR): The entire width of the motorway, including hard shoulders, is used as lanes. There are emergency areas alongside the motorway.
  • Dynamic hard shoulder: The hard shoulder temporarily turns into a traffic lane when the motorway is congested.

Regardless of your opinion about smart motorways, they’re here right now so it’s always good to keep up to date with the latest rules.

One of the most common rules broken on smart motorways is driving in a lane with a red X above it. This red X above a motorway lane means the lane is closed due to repairs, breakdowns, collisions, debris on the road or people or animals are on the road. It is illegal to drive on a closed motorway lane, smart motorway or not, and it could cause a serious incident.

What happens if I break down on a smart motorway?

If you break down on a smart motorway you can still use the hard shoulder if it’s not in use as a lane. If the hard shoulder is being used as a lane, you can use the nearest emergency area (usually marked out in orange). If none of these options are available, safely manoeuver to the left and put your hazard lights on. Exit the vehicle on the passenger side and stand on the other side of the safety barrier on the verge. Don’t put a warning triangle out on the road or try to repair the vehicle yourself – it’s not worth the risk!

If your car breaks down on the motorway and you’re not able to exit the vehicle, then put on your hazards, keep your seatbelts on and call 999 straight away.

What is the future of smart motorways?

There aren’t any plans to remove smart motorways altogether. Realistically, it would take years and millions of pounds to undo the work – the government is now focusing on making what’s already there safer.

However, it’s important to keep in mind their pitfalls and be more vigilant on the roads than ever. Electric cars, for example, wouldn’t be able to “coast” like a conventional car to the nearest emergency area on a smart motorway. Additionally, electric cars are limited in the way they can be towed off the road, due to the way the axles and wheels work. Electric cars are set to become the future, as they’re a lot better for the environment and cheaper to run, but it seems smart motorways are not yet equipped to accommodate these issues.

Edmund King, President of the AA, discussed smart motorways on ITV’s This Morning last year: “We’re meant to be future-proofing our roads […] these roads aren’t fit for the future. You would need more emergency refuges, every 500 metres or so, for electric cars. Even with driverless cars, if the person in control falls asleep, the car should [automatically] stop [where it is]. Officials say the car shouldn’t stop in a lane but in a safe place. We’ve been saying for years […] but we hope and pray for change. I’ve spoken to 12 ministers and made my case. It’s just very frustrating.

A spokesperson for Highways England said: “The Department for Transport is considering a range of evidence during its stocktake. We expect the results to be published shortly and to provide the most up-to-date assessment of the safety of smart motorways. We are committed to implementing any new recommendations as part of our ongoing work to make our roads even safer.”

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