Are Smart Motorways a Good or a Bad Thing?

The introduction of smart motorways back in 2006 was primarily seen as a way of reducing congestion on the nation’s roads. The way this was to be achieved was by the use of variable speed limits and wherever possible making the hard shoulder into a fourth lane. New technology such as ANPR Systems would be employed to help control the flow of traffic and reduce the increasing number of queues that have made motorway travel a frustrating and unpleasant experience for the likes of commuters, day-trippers and HGV drivers alike.

The majority of motorways were constructed many years ago, and over time have become unable to keep pace with the growing number of vehicles on the nation’s roads. So, surely any upgrade to the motorway system has to be a good thing right? However, since the smart motorway system became operational several issues have arisen, especially where safety is concerned that have brought these new roads into focus. So, in this article, we thought we would take a balanced look at the pros and cons of smart motorways to help you make you more informed.

Smart Motorways Pros

  • Improves the Flow of Traffic – The easiest and most obvious way to improve the flow of traffic on any motorway is to add some extra lanes. Now there are two ways to do this, one is to extend the existing motorway which is likely to be extremely expensive and time-consuming. The alternative is to convert existing space such as the hard shoulder that is currently not used as a running lane. This is the route that was taken by smart motorways albeit with a proviso that the lane could be taken out of service if a broken-down vehicle was detected. This was accompanied by the introduction of emergency refuge areas for stricken vehicles. Statistics released by the Highways Agency suggest that this has been relatively successful as the reliability of journey times has improved by around 22% on smart motorways.
  • Smart Motorways are Cost-Effective and Positively Impact the Environment – Converting the hard shoulder was Significantly cheaper than building new lanes, the cost of which would have been borne by the long-suffering taxpayer. Perhaps not as obvious to the layperson is the positive impact on the environment. The reduction of stop-start movements will reduce emissions which can only benefit the environment. This will also reduce wear and tear on your car and help with fuel usage.
  • Hard Shoulder Safety was seen as a Problem – One thing that is probably not widely known is that 40% of accidents involving a stationary vehicle on non-smart motorways occur on the hard shoulder. This statistic suggests that the hard shoulder is not necessarily the safest place to leave a broken down vehicle. I mean if it was totally safe why are drivers and passengers advised to wait outside of the vehicle if it breaks down. Because they are separated from the road, emergency refuge areas are designed to make collisions much less likely.

Smart Motorways the Cons

  • When all Lanes are Running Collisions and Casualties have Increased – The number of casualties, crashes and close shaves involving stranded vehicles seem to have increased since all lanes running motorways were introduced. This has led to doubts arising about the viability of smart motorways. Some MP’s have called for the rollout of these roads to be stopped. While the AA has issued a directive to its staff to not stop to help any motorist unless they have been towed to an emergency refuge area. At present better detection systems and more frequent refuge areas are being implemented in a bid to resolve this issue and make the new smart motorways a safer place.
  • Emergency Refuge Areas – While they may be seen as a better option than the traditional hard shoulder when it comes to reducing stationary vehicle collisions, the problem is that there are not enough of them. Currently, the distance between the emergency refuge areas results in many people having to stop in lanes. Another issue around emergency refuge areas is the restricted amount of space in them which can make re-joining the motorway difficult once your vehicle has been repaired.
  • Smart Motorways can be Confusing – Many people consider smart motorways to be confusing, some hard shoulders are only in use as running lanes during peak periods which often catches drivers out. Quite often drivers are unsure of when they can actually use the hard shoulder, while other road users have issues with sudden changes in the speed limit. One of the reasons for this is that the Cameras used on smart motorways only allow the road 60 seconds to comply after the speed limit is reduced on the overhead gantry.

So, as you can see there are both pros and cons when it comes to smart motorways, and we think the doubters are likely to remain sceptical about them until the improvements mentioned above are implemented.

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