Driving on smart motorways: What are they and how do you use them?
There has been a takeover: The Internet of Things has arrived. We now live our lives operating with smart phones, smart televisions, smart watches, and even the smart doorbell. Now comes the hour of smart travel and even the smart motorway. But what exactly is a smart motorway, and how do they work?
Smart motorways are the latest innovation in traffic flow technology – they’re made to help motorists get around as efficiently as possible. Congestion on the motorway and major road network in England costs an estimated £2 billion every year, with 25 per cent of this resulting from incidents (Highways England), so it has become imperative that there needs to be measures to help drivers fight these issues.
These problems, luckily, have not gone unnoticed. Since 2006, Highways England have been working on integrating smart motorways into the existing UK road system as an alternative method helping to relieve traffic problems.
There are four different types of smart motorway that now traverse the English landscape. Highways England – who are responsible for the smart motorway programme in England – construct, maintain and operate them. They are:
- Controlled motorway: Variable speed limits without hard-shoulder running.
- Dynamic hard shoulder: Variable speed limits with part-time hard shoulder running.
- All lane running: Variable speed limits with the hard shoulder converted to a permanent running lane.
- Through junction running: All lane running through junctions.
By creating and using these differing types of smart motorway it has become possible to determine the effects that traffic flow experiences when controlled differently, compared to normal, not smart-controlled UK roads.
So, with all the additional technology installed, what benefits do motorists see from smart motorways?
Well, one of the benefits is the moveable lanes. Often, when traffic flow is noticeably heavier than it should be, it is possible for remote lane adjustments to be made – such as opening the hard shoulder – in order to help ease the congestion and get motorists back on track with their travels. With the addition of benefits such as an extra lane for traffic flow, it becomes much easier for drivers to travel along otherwise slow or even standing motorways at busy times.
In regard to accidents, as well as helping to greatly reduce the number of incidents, smart motorways are also good at helping people travel safely even when there may be an obstruction in the road because of the option of move, open and close lanes for drivers to work around the problem.
The advantages of having smart motorways have been analysed since their inception, as it is important to prove that the changes really make a difference to drivers. Since the opening of the M42 as a managed motorway (as it was originally named) in 2006, analysis of its smart data has found that:
- journey reliability improved by 22 per cent
- personal injury accidents reduced by more than half
- where accidents did occur, severity was much lower overall with zero fatalities and fewer seriously injured
So it is clearly evident that smart motorways are helping to cut congestion and travel times for motorway users. But how safe are they for users?
Highways England have said they are “committed to safety in every aspect of [their] work. All lane running smart motorway design is based on robust analysis by experienced professionals using tested methodologies.” (source) They also say that their analysis “demonstrates that our safety objectives were likely to be achieved with road user safety no worse than before all lane running is implemented,” citing the results of the M25 smart sections as evidence.
Smart motorways also include the extra safety of emergency refuge areas, which are designed to provide a relatively safe area following a breakdown or problem for drivers on smart motorways. Their frequency is such that “if you are driving at 60mph you will reach a place you can stop in an emergency every 75 seconds on average.” (source) Each of these areas has a telephone that can connect you to a control centre in order to pinpoint your position and get you the assistance you require.
If you’re still unsure about smart motorways, here are some quick tips to help you with driving on them.
On a smart motorway:
- never drive in a lane closed by a red “X”
- keep to the speed limit shown on the gantries
- a solid white line indicates the hard shoulder – don’t drive in it unless directed.
- a broken white line indicates a normal running lane
- if your vehicle experiences difficulties, eg warning light, exit the smart motorway immediately if possible
- use the refuge areas for emergencies if there’s no hard shoulder
- put your hazard lights on if you break down
If you need some more help, this gov.uk page offers additional help and guidance, such as this video:
There are, however, some bodies that have stepped forward to voice concerns about smart motorways and their impact on both motorists and the environment. An AA survey of more than 20,000 motorists found that “79 per cent think the loss of hard shoulders has made motorways less safe,” (source) and Kevin Clinton, head of road safety at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), said: “Using the hard shoulder as a running lane may make it more difficult for drivers to find somewhere safe to stop if they break down, as the emergency refuges are only spaced at intervals along the motorway.” (source)
Alongside concerns for motorists, there are also issues being raised regarding the environmental impact of smart motorways. Tony Bosworth, from Friends of the Earth (FoE), disagreed there were environmental benefits: “It’s effectively motorway widening on the cheap. We believe it’s simply going to encourage more drivers and cause an increase in carbon dioxide.” (source)
Remember, if you do break down or suffer from car troubles when driving on a smart motorway, a Trust My Garage member is never far away and can provide you with quality, trustworthy help. For a map of your nearest members click here.
It looks like the future of the smart motorway is set for them to become the ubiquitous format for major road construction and control across the UK. Despite this, it seems as though the jury is still out on the pros and cons of smart motorways. Only time will tell.