Smart Motorways: Are They Really That Smart?

February 11, 2020, By

It has recently been brought to light that 38 people have been killed in the last 5 years on smart motorways, and Highways England is facing police investigation because of reports that safety concerns had been repeatedly ignored.

What are Smart Motorways?

A smart motorway is a section of a motorway that uses traffic management methods to increase capacity and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas. Smart motorways can adapt to suit the state of the traffic. For example, extra lanes can be opened or speed limits adjusted.

The theory behind smart motorways is that they help maintain a smooth flow of traffic.

Technology is being used to monitor and manage the flow of traffic on many parts of the motorway network run by Highways England. Regional control centres manage this technology, activating and changing signs and enforcing variable speed limits.

Because smart motorways can use the hard shoulder as a standard lane, new ‘emergency refuge’ areas have been introduced. These are up to 1.5 miles apart and painted orange for better visibility.

Issues with Smart Motorways

  • Emergency refuge spots are deemed to be too far apart
  • This spacing appears to have been in the name of cost-cutting
  • No technology to warn when cars halt in speeding traffic
  • Lack of hard shoulder means no real place to stop safely and call for help
  • Becomes very difficult for road recovery services to tow vehicles away

This poor planning means that any drivers experiencing mechanical faults can end up too far away from a refuge spot, broken down amongst moving traffic, then end up getting hit by other vehicles.

Advice from the Highways Agency

Here are some general guidelines that the Highways Agency has provided to ensure that drivers can be kept as safe as possible in the event of a breakdown or emergency:

  • Drive to the safety areas that are ‘regularly spaced’ and use the SOS telephones
  • Get out of your vehicle if it is safe to do so
  • Wait at the other side of the safety barrier
  • Pull as close to the left as possible
  • Switch on hazards and fog lights
  • Call 999

In theory, smart motorway technology will make the Highways Agency aware of your situation and the control centres can change the speed limits and close lanes as appropriate. The effectiveness of this process comes down to individuals working in the control centres who rely on CCTV and reports from police and the public.

What the Experts Say

Both the RAC and AA have expressed serious reservations about the loss of the hard shoulder.

Nicolas Lyes, Head of Roads Policy at the RAC, said more than two-thirds of drivers surveyed felt the removal of the hard shoulder “compromises safety”, while breaking down in a live lane carries a “much higher risk” than on a hard shoulder or in an emergency area.

The AA also wants emergency areas to be installed every three-quarters of a mile, claiming they are currently about a mile and a half apart.

Breaking Down on Smart Motorways

While these motorways may seem a great idea in principle, the reality is that they do not factor in the sudden breakdown of a vehicle.

This could happen when a tyre is blown or punctured or the engine suddenly fails.

In these circumstances, it is impossible to reach the nearest ‘emergency refuge area’. Drivers are left to try and maintain control of the vehicle and pull over to what was the hard shoulder.

We suspect that many have been unfortunate enough to have been in this position, and can only imagine the horror of having to think straight in a moment of panic.

A Moment of Horror

Pulling over to the left, putting the hazards on, hoping that nobody is too close behind you, and essentially crossing your fingers in the hope that somebody in the control room is paying attention to the CCTV to change the overhead signs, must be extremely stressful.

Imagine this situation, and then imagine it again with children or someone elderly in the car and having to get them to a safe place. Even if the person behind sees you, they have to try and manoeuvre safely to the next lane, and so on.

We sympathise with parties who endure breakdowns on the motorway, and those lucky enough to survive them. We also feel for those in the cars behind who may also feel a huge onset of panic.

With 38 deaths in just 5 years, one has to wonder what the government has to set as being an ‘acceptable’ number of fatalities for ‘smart motorways’ to still be considered a success

If you have been injured as a result of a road traffic accident or accused of being at fault in relation to the smart motorways and their setup, do not hesitate to seek expert legal advice from either our personal injury team or our road traffic offence solicitors.