Smart motorways have become an increasingly prominent up and down the country. They have been introduced as a cost-effective way to increase capacity on congested motorways; but are they safe?
The main purpose of smart motorways is to ease congestion. This is by permitting cars to be driven on the hard shoulder, with traffic being monitored via cameras and ‘active’ speed signs which can vary the limit. However according to the RAC, more than two-thirds (68%) of drivers in England think this compromises safety for those who breakdown in a live lane. Moreover, findings reported by the AA suggest that cars which break down on smart motorways face significantly higher levels of danger than vehicles on traditional stretches of motorway.
Motorists are instructed to stop at the next emergency refuge area (ERA) if their car experiences difficulties. These areas are small bays located off the hard shoulder, which should not be more than 1.5 miles apart. Vehicles that are unable to reach an ERA are advised to move onto the verge – provided they are able to do so, and assuming there is no safety barrier.
However cars which have broken down completely face being stuck in a live motorway lane. They are reliant on being spotted either by CCTV operators or an automated stationary vehicle detection system. Once such breakdowns have been identified, the relevant lane will be closed to traffic with a red X symbol shown on signs ahead of the incident – until the vehicle can be rescued. Worryingly, further research from the AA suggests this is taking far too long and putting motorists in grave danger.
The safety concerns are clear. In the last 5 years 38 people have died on smart motorways. Typical incidents have included malfunctioning cars coming to a halt before being smashed into by large vehicles unable to react in time. As a result of such incidents and other reported similar casualties, smart motorway critics are campaigning for the original hard shoulders to be reinstated imminently.
On the other hand, supporters of the smart motorway suggest that the alternative to smart motorways is even worse. They argue that if we don’t have the road capacity on the motorway system then the traffic will be spread onto other local road systems – where the road safety risk is even higher. Nevertheless, it has been admitted by the transport secretary that one of the problems is the gap between stop off points being too far apart. It has also been recognised that there should be more technology involved to spot broken vehicles, but this has not been put in place as planned.
Essentially, it has been acknowledged that the whole system is still under review but the problem that it’s already firmly in place. Arguably, this is asking for trouble.
Highways England has suggested it has no immediate further plans to add any further stretches of smart motorways, at least until the safety issues have been resolved. This is probably for the best.