Transport Committee Reports on Smart Motorways

Parliament’s Transport Committee have published a report following their inquiry into Smart Motorways (those where the hard shoulder is turned into a running lane).

There is grave concern among the motoring public about the safety of such roads which were introduced a few years ago without any real evidence on their safety. There were 15 deaths on motorways without a hard shoulder in 2019 and several coroner’s reports criticised the safety of these roads.

The Transport Committee recommends more emergency refuge areas, an inquiry by the Office of Rail and Road into the effectiveness of stopped vehicle technology and revisions to the Highway Code. But it is unclear whether these changes will have any significant impact on the safety of such roads.

The National Highways organisation (formerly Highways England) are even running an expensive advertising campaign telling drivers to “Go Left” if they breakdown. This makes sense if there is a hard shoulder, a nearby exit or a nearby refuge area, but otherwise if there is not it simply puts the vehicle into the left-hand lane typically occupied by HGVs. This is the most dangerous position to be in as such heavy vehicles will demolish small cars and likely kill the occupants.

This is surely a misconceived piece of advice in response to concerns about accidents on motorways.

Comment: Smart motorways have been introduced as a way to maximise traffic capacity without spending more money on widening motorways. In other words, road safety has been compromised on the alter of economics. There was never a proper cost/benefit analysis of smart motorways which are expensive to introduce and manage.

All lane running also creates problems for the police and other emergency services when accessing accidents because typically all lanes are blocked when an incident occurs and there is no hard shoulder.

As with LTNs, the Department for Transport seems to be poorly led, produces policies which are irrational, and in this case dangerous.

We suggest that the expansion in the number of Smart Motorways should be halted and more money spent on improving road capacity by other means.

Transport Committee Report:  https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/7703/documents/80447/default/  

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Smart Motorways Not So Smart

Anyone who drives around the M25 will have noticed that the speed limits set on the overhead gantries appear to bear no relation to the traffic volumes. Speeds are often set at 60, 50 or even 40 for no obvious reason. Other “Smart Motorways” across the country show the same problem, and the result has been a large increase in the number of people fined (or diverted to speed awareness courses) for exceeding the set speed limit. The number of infringements doubled last year according to the Times.

The justification for smart motorways was that they can reduce congestion by smoothing the traffic flows and help to maintain safety. The speed limits are set partly by automated systems that measure the speed of traffic, but apparently they are also set “pre-emptively” by staff where known congestion is likely to occur at busy times. But as traffic volumes can be unpredictable this sometimes results in lower speeds being set than is appropriate – you can frequently see this around the western side of the M25 around London airport and on the eastern side near the Dartford Crossing.

In addition it is known that the odd particularly slow moving vehicle can result in the speed limit being reduced by the automated system. In other words, the “smart” system is not at all intelligent.

However Highways England is now undertaking a comprehensive review of variable speed limits on motorways. Surely it would be better to simply have an advisory system to tell drivers that there was congestion ahead so that they can slow down and avoid the “stop/start” problem that reduces traffic flows?

At present you have a dumb system instructing intelligent humans (which they mostly are) with the result of needlessly slower traffic speeds and drivers being caught out by unexpected changes in the limits or signs they may not have seen or noticed.

Roger Lawson

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Drivers_London

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