a guide to smart motorways

a guide to smart motorways

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With more cars on UK roads than ever before, the powers-that-be have been looking at ways to reduce congestion and increase the steady flow of traffic on the country’s motorways. In 2019, Highways England explained that there would be 300miles of smart motorway added by 2025, in aid or reducing the estimated £2billion cost caused by congestion and road incidents. Let’s dive in and discover what smart motorways are, whether they are safe, and how they will affect you.

What are the benefits of smart motorways?

Smart motorways are sections of existing motorways that have implemented traffic calming measures aimed at reducing congestion. They work by changing the purpose of the hard shoulder, making it a drive lane during busy times - either occasionally or permanently. 

Using technology to monitor traffic levels, change speed limits to help smoothen the flow of traffic, and reduce stop/start driving all help to bring travel and wait times down to give a better driving experience for all road users. Smart motorways can also increase road capacity more effectively than merely widening the road - plus because they utilise existing stretches of road, there is no need to build more, meaning less of an environmental impact.

Are smart motorways dangerous?

Many drivers think smart motorways will be more dangerous because of the lack of a hard shoulder to stop in safely. Highways England have been gathering data since 2006 when the very first smart motorway was implemented, and the results show that they are safer. Journey reliability was reported to have improved by 22%, and there has been an almost 50% reduction in accidents involving personal injury. 

The main reason why many drivers might consider smart motorways to be unsafe is due to a lack of education as to their benefits. The removal of a hard shoulder for stopping will not make the roads less safe as there will be Emergency Refuge Areas (ERAs) clearly signposted and painted orange. Drivers will be reminded regularly of the distance to the next ERA.

What happens if you break down on a smart motorway?

If a motorist experiences mechanical issues while on a smart motorway that has all lanes running (ALR), they are advised to move to the next available ERA or onto the verge and await rescue, it is the whole idea of breaking down that has left many drivers scratching their heads. Without a hard shoulder, and with intermittent ERAs, will cars that break down be able to move away safely from an active lane? 

If you cannot move your car to an appropriate area, you should turn on your hazard lights and call 999 straight away. The lane will then be closed and marked with a red X to tell other drivers to move to another lane.

Are smart motorways safer?

While there is data to suggest that smart motorways are safer, there is also data that shows the opposite. The AA has said that hazard log data they have compiled shows that breaking down on an ALR motorway can be three times more dangerous than doing so on a road with a hard shoulder. 

Highways England, however, have said that there is overall better safety on smart motorways because of a smoother flow of traffic and the option of closing lanes for vehicles that find themselves in trouble. 

In March 2020, it was announced by the UK government that a full review would be done to assess the safety of smart motorways going forward, with an 18-point plan in place to tackle the various concerns people have. The plan includes speeding up the deployment of stopped vehicle detection technology and reducing the distance between ERAs. They also plan to run a campaign to raise public awareness of smart motorways and the reason they have been created.

Which motorways are smart motorways?

There are many smart motorways already running in the UK including the M1 between junctions 32 to 35a, the M3 junctions 2 to 4a, and the M6 junction 2 to 4.

You can find the full list on the Highways England website - https://highwaysengland.co.uk/programmes/smart-motorways/

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