BLOG: Reviewing Smart Motorways, Part 1: Do We Need To Put The Brakes On?

Almost all of us use the motorway network as part of our travels across the country and as Smart Motorways are continuing to be rolled out, we are all developing opinions and perhaps some understanding on their positive and negative impacts. In this series of blogs, we explore how ideas on future developments can create a positive outcome in developing the UK’s roads.

Smart motorway is a term used to describe several changes being rolled out across the strategic road network (SRN) in the UK. The term refers to three types of scheme, all intended to increase capacity on the SRN. Controlled motorways are those where the speed limit can vary in response to the volume of traffic, but a hard shoulder is present and only to be used in an emergency. All lane running (ALR) schemes have a variable speed limit and the hard shoulder is used as a live lane. Dynamic hard shoulder schemes are somewhere between the two with the hard shoulder used as a running lane only when traffic is heavy.

These changes are being rolled out in response to the huge issue of congestion. The most recent INRIX report estimated that British drivers lost £7.9 billion in 2018 as a result of the direct and indirect costs of congestion. Individually, drivers wasted 31 hours in rush hour traffic, costing them £1,168 over the year. Clearly, we need to increase capacity to reduce congestion, but smart motorways are not proving popular with motorists.

In a previous Clearview blog we considered driver perception of smart motorways and what more needs to be done to raise awareness of the emergency refuge areas (ERAs) and when and how to use them. Essentially, public sentiment is against schemes that use the hard shoulder as a running lane. Drivers fear they will not be able to reach an ERA if they break down, leaving them stranded in a live lane of the motorway. In a recent survey by the AA, drivers judged such roads to be the seventh most dangerous road type out of only eight options. Only ‘narrow lanes with passing place’ were perceived to be more dangerous.

So far, the response to these concerns has been to improve driver understanding of how to drive on smart motorways and to adapt the design and frequency of ERAs.

Highways England have produced videos as part of wider advertising campaigns on what to do in an emergency and the importance of respecting the red X symbol. The red X is the sign displayed on overhead gantry’s when a vehicle is stationary in a live lane and means that drivers must exit that lane as quickly as possible.

They have also recently announced that they will be reducing the maximum gap between ERAs from 1.5 miles to one mile where possible.
Despite this, support is growing for a campaign to halt the roll out of smart motorways all together.

The Campaign for Safer Roadside Rescue & Recovery, started by Sam Cockerill, the widow of a roadside worker killed when recovering a vehicle on the M25, is calling for the Government to halt the roll out of all ALR schemes. The campaign now has the support of an all-party parliamentary group for roadside rescue and recovery. The group is chaired by Sir Mike Penning, who has said that smart motorways are putting the lives of recovery workers “at risk” and highlighted the issue of red X lane closure signs not being enforced. Sir Mike has further stated that: “We are losing about eight recovery workers a year and even more seriously injured”.

Clearview have technology in operation the length and breadth of the UKs roads. Many of our solutions operate on the SRN, so our team of engineers are well aware of the risks posed by working on high-speed roads. However, when they do so, there is stringent traffic management in place. We would not allow them to work on a motorway lane with only an overhead gantry sign telling drivers to get out of that lane. Clearly this could be a very dangerous place.

So why, if this is too dangerous for our colleagues at Clearview, is it acceptable for recovery workers? Should they be expected to shoulder the risk? And how does this fit with Highways England’s aim that no one should be harmed when travelling or working on the SRN? That said, it is hard to think of an alternative, a member of the public who breaks down on an ALR scheme but cannot reach an ERA still needs to be recovered. How else can this be done?

Perhaps we should apply some of the technical innovations that have been made to improve safety for road workers to recovery workers? Perhaps the distance between ERAs should be shortened further? Or perhaps ALR schemes do need to be scrapped?

The all-party parliamentary group for roadside rescue and recovery is looking at whether smart motorways put recovery workers at risk and whether they are more dangerous than standard motorways. They are due to report their findings in September 2019.

In the next instalment, we’ll take a look at the safety record of smart motorways.