Simon Benfield on the multiple benefits brought to road users by the implementation of Smart Motorways
All-lane running Smart Motorways: a natural and logical evolution of the dynamic hard shoulder-running Managed Motorways, or sacrificing the safety of road users on the altar of cost cutting? If you believe the Transport Select Committee, who recently called on the UK Government to abandon the ‘all-lane running’ schemes, it is certainly the latter – but is this view really supported by the evidence?


The hard shoulder is seen by many motorists as a place of safety, providing a space to pull into should something go wrong with their vehicle. However, this is a false sense of safety. After all, it is only a strip of white paint which separates the hard shoulder from traffic travelling in excess of 70mph. It is a dangerous place to stop your vehicle and it can also increase the risks to other road users, either through distraction (how many of us peer across to look at vehicles stopped on the hard shoulder?), or through the creation of a physical hazard next to the running lanes; it is by no means unusual for a vehicle to stray across the line into the hard shoulder – if vehicles are in a layby they are much less likely to be struck.


Research has shown that, when motorists experience car trouble and there is no hard shoulder available, they are able to continue on to a suitable lay-by or exit in the vast majority of cases. This raises interesting questions about the psychological impact of having a hard shoulder available and the safety issues that this can cause. One only needs to look at the trunk road network, where stranded motorists are uncommon, to see this in action.


Of course, although a rare phenomenon, road users can become stranded on running lanes of motorways on occasion. When this does happen, the fact that Smart Motorways are equipped with 100 per cent CCTV coverage and vehicle detection radars creates an environment which is in many ways safer than the traditional three lane motorway. In fact, it is my experience that road users exercise more wisdom than they are given credit for and are able to ‘self-manage’ traffic flows. This particularly occurs on ‘standard’ motorways after an accident where those involved remain at the point of collision, rather than moving to the hard shoulder, to avoid any arguments with their insurers until the emergency services are in attendance.


Perhaps most central to the argument on the safety of the schemes is the fact that there has been an overall reduction in collisions where Smart Motorways operate with hard shoulder running in effect, either temporarily or permanently.


There are other considerations to take into account too, including the benefits to UK PLC and the general public. Britain has some of the most congested roads in Europe and the impact of this on the economy and quality of life for commuters and local residents should not be underestimated. Smart Motorways will reduce the extent and duration of congestion by flattening out the speed peaks and troughs and this in turn will reduce the emissions which at the moment make our urban areas toxic. With predicted traffic growths this congestion will impact the whole motorway network within the next decade. The mental health of the road user cannot be under estimated either; how many of us spend hours of our lives stuck in the same traffic jams day after day? The time and stress of sitting in traffic jams adds to the working day and is a significant contributor to low productivity and morale.


With ever more vehicles on the roads, it is becoming increasingly important that Highways England increase Britain’s capacity so that we are as ready as possible to face the challenges ahead in a post Brexit landscape. Although there has been an increase in investment in the UK’s infrastructure, this is still a finite pot of money.


The more straightforward management requirements of Smart Motorways have enabled the scale and volume of signals along with their supporting structures to be reduced which in turn reduces both the capital and running costs of schemes.


The use of Smart Motorways therefore allows the pot of money to be shared across the greatest number of schemes; there are currently 16 Smart Motorway schemes in construction or design in the UK at present. If these were to be Managed Motorways then we would perhaps only be looking at 12 schemes and for conventional widening this number could drop to eight or even lower. Conventional widening also has a much greater impact on the surrounding environment due to the land take required and the loss of habitat as the verges are steepened and hardened. The resulting prolonged congestion across the busiest sections of the motorway network would have a long term impact on the economy, it would increase levels of air pollution, and would continue to impact on the wellbeing and ultimately the performance of the road users spending unnecessary hours stuck in congestion as discussed above.


Anything that involves humans and vehicles travelling at fast speeds will never be perfectly safe and there are reasonable steps that could be taken to improve Smart Motorways – an increase in the amount of emergency refuge lay-bys (the current 2km spacing is perhaps a bit too far) and an educational campaign working with motoring organisations would be a good start. It should be noted that Highways England has recently launched such a campaign but this information is only really available to those who look for it, it is not being shouted from the rooftops. We might consider reverting to the national advertising campaigns produced in the 1970s and 80s; those of us of a certain age can still remember the Green Cross Code man or George the cat – simple messages but ones that are remembered 30 or 40 years on.


All things considered I believe that a level-headed cost-benefit-risk analysis of the Smart Motorways will find them a sensible way forward in the current climate.

Simon Benfield is Team Director, Bridges South, for Ramboll