Not so Smart

Published on 17 April 2023

There have been rumours for months. Now the announcement has been made - “all new Smart Motorways scrapped”. What does this mean for the Smart Motorway project and for the roads programme?

Smart Motorways have been the subject of controversy for years, and a thorn in the side of successive transport ministers who have found it difficult to handle the increasingly vocal campaign against them. Last year, Rishi Sunak pledged he’d scrap them if he became Prime Minister, and now he’s done just that. Sort of.

In this blog post - which is very long, because there’s a lot to talk about, so you may want to find a comfortable seat - we’ll try to cover the Smart Motorway story to date and figure out where we are now. But before we get to what has happened, and whether it will please anyone, we should have a quick recap.

What’s a Smart Motorway?

We have a whole article describing Smart Motorways and the things you’ll find if you travel on one, but this is the simple answer: a Smart Motorway is one that has been rebuilt to provide more running lanes, uses technology to manage traffic flow, and in almost all cases, has occasional lay-bys instead of a continuous hard shoulder. Some older ones have a part-time hard shoulder that is used as a running lane only when it’s busy.

Smart Motorways were supposed to sort out traffic problems like this. Click to enlarge
Smart Motorways were supposed to sort out traffic problems like this. Click to enlarge

They are the product of a policy for the English trunk road network that has been evolving since the 1990s. Roadbuilding is politically difficult, so it’s rarely possible to relieve a congested motorway by building another nearby. That usually makes widening the only workable solution, but widening an existing motorway is the slowest, most difficult, most expensive and most inefficient way to provide extra capacity: bridges have to be rebuilt and carriageways relaid with new profiles, all while live traffic continues to run.

A cheaper way of doing the job was needed, and it arrived in the early 2000s, when many of England’s dual three-lane motorways were reaching saturation point and money for widening was scarce. A fourth lane could be added quickly and cheaply if the hard shoulder was sacrificed, with the advantage that no bridges had to be rebuilt, the carriageway didn’t have to be modified and - since no new land had to be acquired - no public inquiry or planning permission were needed. 

Today long lengths of the English motorway network have been converted.

From Solihull with love

The controversy started years ago. In 2006 the Highways Agency (as it was then called) inaugurated a prototype called Active Traffic Management (ATM) on the M42 near Solihull, east of Birmingham, opening the hard shoulder to traffic when the road was congested. Emergency lay-bys provided a place to stop when the hard shoulder was unavailable.

The M42 near Solihull, site of the original Active Traffic Management project. Click to enlarge
The M42 near Solihull, site of the original Active Traffic Management project. Click to enlarge

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) was unconvinced on day one, telling the press that "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.” Back then refuges were about 500m apart, roughly three in every mile.

The Highways Agency’s promise in September 2006 was that the road was monitored by CCTV, and the new electronic signs would let them close the lane if a vehicle came to a stop. They told the BBC that “it won't be a case of waiting for someone to contact us, we'll see straight away.” That original scheme had CCTV cameras every few hundred metres.

The ATM trial was considered a success, reducing congestion for a fraction of the cost of widening the M42. More projects were then rolled out, initially under the name Managed Motorways, and later as Smart Motorways.

Over time, the concept evolved. Many Smart projects grew to involve new earthworks and extensive carriageway reconstruction, and took years to complete - bringing the timescale and cost closer to traditional widening. Meanwhile, camera coverage and technology were considered too lavish on early schemes and were scaled back, and emergency refuges were placed further apart.

Four lanes and no hard shoulder on the M25: All Lane Running (ALR) in action. Click to enlarge
Four lanes and no hard shoulder on the M25: All Lane Running (ALR) in action. Click to enlarge

The original concept of Dynamic Hard Shoulder Running (DHSR), opening the hard shoulder to traffic some of the time, when the road is busiest, gave way to All Lane Running (ALR), which replaces the hard shoulder with a permanent running lane, meaning the road always has the same number of lanes, but never has a hard shoulder.

The cold shoulder

In the seventeen years since the first ATM trial, optimism has been tempered by reality. Stranded vehicles being seen “straight away” proved to be simply untrue: National Highways control centres don’t have the staffing to watch all the cameras all the time (how could they?), so breakdowns usually have to be reported by phone before the signals are activated.

In March 2016, official statistics showed the average time between an incident occurring and signals being activated was a worrying 17 minutes. Since then, automatic Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) has been rolled out to all Smart Motorways, but too late to reverse the horrifying impression that had already been made.

Response times are one reason to be angry. Another is that people have died after becoming stranded in live lanes on Smart Motorways, in situations where the presence of a hard shoulder might have saved them. In every case, there had once been a hard shoulder and it had been removed. Refuges on newer Smart Motorways can be up to a mile and a half apart.

An Emergency Refuge Area on the M3. Click to enlarge
An Emergency Refuge Area on the M3. Click to enlarge

Opposition to the concept of Smart Motorways is now well organised, led from the front by the starkly-named Smart Motorways Kill campaign. The press is actively hostile. Questions are raised in Parliament. Coroners issue damning verdicts. Shot through all of this is the same overarching fear: that these roads are not safe, because the hard shoulder has been taken away.

Then, in 2022, Rishi Sunak saw his opportunity to enter 10 Downing Street, and issued a campaign pledge that he knew would be popular. No more Smart Motorways!

That one simple phrase leaves a lot open to question. Time for some answers. They might not be the answers you expect.

What does this announcement change?

Not much. In 2019, transport secretary Grant Shapps paused the Smart Motorway programme and ordered a “stocktake”, which was a safety review of sorts that made recommendations for improving safety and public confidence.

Among its proposals were the installation of more emergency refuges; a large-scale public information campaign; automatic Stopped Vehicle Detection that would trigger “report of obstruction” messages on signs; updates to the Highway Code; and camera enforcement for lanes that were closed with red X signals.

Roadworks ahead. Smart Motorway projects typically took years, but did deliver more capacity. Click to enlarge
Roadworks ahead. Smart Motorway projects typically took years, but did deliver more capacity. Click to enlarge

Since then all Smart Motorway projects yet to start have been on hold. This week’s announcement is basically to say that the temporary halt has become a permanent end. Two projects that are mostly done (M56 J6-8 and M6 J21A-26) will be finished. It also mentions that the number of new emergency refuges to be retro-fitted to existing Smart Motorways is 150.

The Smart Motorway programme has been grinding to a halt for almost four years now, and official use of the term was abandoned long ago. Some projects, like the M4 Smart Motorway between London and Reading, had the phrase “digital roads” on project information signs through the roadworks, where previously “Smart Motorway” would have been used. On other projects in the pipeline for 2025-2030, vague titles like “M1 North Leicestershire Extra Capacity” had started to appear, in a deliberate attempt to avoid a name that had become toxic.

The wheels had already come off the bus. It’s just official now.

Is this the end of Smart Motorways?

No. There had been speculation in recent weeks (including from the RAC, who might have known better) that existing Smart Motorways would be re-painted back to three lanes and a hard shoulder. That is not going to happen. It would, for a start, cause huge traffic problems. Smart Motorways exist to increase capacity, and demand has increased in many places because that capacity has been provided. Removing it again would make the traffic worse than ever before, and that’s not a recipe for safer roads.

Works like these will be a thing of the past when the two remaining projects finish. Then what do we do? Click to enlarge
Works like these will be a thing of the past when the two remaining projects finish. Then what do we do? Click to enlarge

What’s actually happening is that the current situation is being frozen. We will still have Smart Motorways, though official use of that term is probably going to be abandoned. We’re just not going to convert any more.

There are something like 240 miles of Smart Motorway in England - not as much as you might think, once you add it up - made up of both DHSR and ALR sections. They will all stay as they are, though the safety improvements already announced will continue.

Is this a return of motorway widening?

No. There is no promise here to replace the abandoned Smart Motorway projects with something else. That leaves some overloaded motorways without a plan.

However, many that were due to start in recent years have seen roadworks beginning - not for widening, not for capacity improvements, and certainly not for Smart Motorway works, but to build all the elements of the project that weren’t a Smart Motorway. That usually means carriageway reconstruction, drainage works, communications upgrades, and replacement of the central reservation with a reinforced concrete barrier.

The M62 between Manchester and Leeds, once due a fourth lane but now only likely to get an upgraded central reservation. Click to enlarge
The M62 between Manchester and Leeds, once due a fourth lane but now only likely to get an upgraded central reservation. Click to enlarge

This is happening in part because those things were needed whether or not the road was converted to Smart Motorway - major roads need this sort of periodic renewal every couple of decades and many Smart schemes included all that stuff. It’s also happening because of the way public infrastructure projects work: the money had been allocated, the contracts had been signed, and if the entire scheme was cancelled National Highways had nowhere else to spend money that they had to spend before the end of a particular financial year.

So there are now projects happening that were supposed to deliver extra capacity in return for years of disruption, but which will now just deliver the same road as before with a new central reservation.

Here’s a summary of where we are today.

SchemeProgressOutcome
M1 North Leicestershire Extra CapacityNot started, due 2025-2030Cancelled
M1 J35A-39 Extra CapacityNot started, due 2025-2030Cancelled
M3 J9-14 Smart MotorwayWork started 2021, due for completion 2024Smart Motorway elements cancelled, will deliver no new capacity
M6 J19-21ANot started, due 2025-2030Cancelled
M6 J21a-26 Smart MotorwayWork started 2021, due for completion 2024Going ahead as planned, will deliver four lanes each way with ALR
M25 J10-16 Smart MotorwayPaused since 2019Cancelled
M40/M42 Interchange Smart MotorwayPaused since 2019Cancelled
M56 J6-8 Smart MotorwayWork started 2021, due for completion 2024Going ahead as planned, will deliver four lanes each way with ALR
M62 J20-25 Smart MotorwayPaused since 2019Cancelled
A1(M) J6-8 Smart MotorwayDeferred in 2019, funds diverted to provide recommendations from the stocktakeCancelled

There is no replacement for these cancelled schemes - at least, none that has been announced. And that makes perfect sense: we can’t build new motorways to relieve the old ones, we can’t easily or affordably widen them, and now we can’t convert them to Smart Motorways either. There isn’t another option. So, in the absence of other ideas, that’s it.

Does this prove the campaigners were right?

No. Which is not to say the people campaigning against Smart Motorways are wrong - it’s just that this announcement isn't here to give them what they want. If anything it is designed to take the heat out of their campaign and get Smart Motorways out of the headlines.

Claire Mercer, who leads the Smart Motorways Kill campaign group, summarised it nicely on Sunday. While she welcomed the news, she said that “it's the existing ones that are killing us”. The existing Smart Motorways are not going anywhere. So, for the people who want them gone, this is hardly the fulfilment of their goals.

All of which brings us to the vexed question of safety.

Will this make motorways safer?

No. It doesn’t matter which way you slice it or what your opinions are. The answer is no.

We should start by putting the emotion to one side and asking how safe Smart Motorways actually are.    

The stocktake gave us useful statistics to work with. The result may be surprising: Smart Motorways are, statistically, among the safest roads we have. But while the overall balance of risk may be lower on average, the risk of specific things happening could still be higher than on other roads - and that’s the problem.

Many risks are reduced because speeds are lower and there is more enforcement. Tailgating, loss of control, unsafe lane changes, drifting off the carriageway and speed-related incidents are all reduced. As a result, the overall hazard to motorists on Smart Motorways is calculated as being 20% lower than on a conventional motorway. But one risk increases significantly - “vehicle stops in running lane”, which is many times worse on ALR than on a motorway with a hard shoulder.

Smart Motorways see double the number of vehicles stopped in live traffic lanes due to breakdowns - 40% on ALR motorways, compared to 20% on conventional motorways. Interestingly, though, fast A-roads are much worse, with 52% of breakdowns in live traffic lanes and no sophisticated technology to mitigate the risk.

Is ALR better or worse than other types of motorway? The answer is complicated. Click to enlarge
Is ALR better or worse than other types of motorway? The answer is complicated. Click to enlarge

Meanwhile, collisions on the hard shoulder are often overlooked. 8% of motorway fatalities occur on the hard shoulder; 27 people died while stopped there between 2014 and 2017. It is not the safe haven many people imagine. Worse, many stops aren’t for emergencies at all: they’re to make a phone call or because someone needs the toilet. Every one is a needless risk to life, and if the road didn’t have a hard shoulder, in many cases the driver would have carried on and found somewhere else to stop. In other words, stopping on a hard shoulder carries a significant risk in itself; removing the hard shoulder not only removes that risk, but it actually reduces the number of vehicles that stop at all.

An average of 9,206 breakdowns and stoppages in live lanes are recorded every year, but only 19 result in collisions. That’s not to say 19 horrible rear-end smashes a year is acceptable, but it puts in to context the likelihood that a stranded vehicle on an ALR motorway will actually suffer a horrifying rear-end collision of the type that is so vividly imagined by some.

The other conclusion of the stocktake was that DHSR is less safe, and less well understood, than ALR. For all its faults, ALR provides a completely clear and unambiguous environment: there are four lanes, there are always four lanes, and there is never a hard shoulder. DHSR, by contrast, provides a road with a hard shoulder marking that you can sometimes cross and sometimes not; a place you can sometimes stop in safety and sometimes not; and lanes that may be open through a junction, or only up to the exit, or not at all. It’s common to see people driving in the hard shoulder when it’s closed and avoiding it when it’s open. 

Dynamic Hard Shoulder Running (DHSR) may be the worst of all worlds. Are we stuck with it? Click to enlarge
Dynamic Hard Shoulder Running (DHSR) may be the worst of all worlds. Are we stuck with it? Click to enlarge

One major improvement to public safety would be to reduce the scope for confusion and misunderstanding by having just one type of Smart Motorway that operated the same way everywhere. That is why all DHSR motorways were due to be converted to ALR in coming years, providing a level of clarity and simplicity that Smart Motorways have been sorely lacking.

This week’s announcement has scrapped all those projects, because they count as Smart Motorway work, and all Smart Motorway work must stop.

So, to return to the question “will this make motorways safer?”, here is the answer from every perspective.

PositionDoes this announcement help?
"I believe all Smart Motorways should be scrapped and hard shoulders should be reintroduced."No. All existing Smart Motorways will remain. Hard shoulders will not be reintroduced.
"I believe part-time hard shoulder running is safer because at least there’s a hard shoulder sometimes."No. ALR motorways will not be converted to part-time hard shoulder running.
"The statistics show that ALR is safer than almost all other types of road. I believe we should follow the evidence."No. Projects to convert DHSR to ALR have all been cancelled. We will retain the current confusing mix of types.
"We are stuck with Smart Motorways now but I believe they should be made safer."No. Work is ongoing to add extra safety features to existing Smart Motorways but this announcement doesn’t change that.
"I believe Smart Motorways are the least bad way to add new capacity to the motorway network and deal with overloaded, dangerous roads."No. All future Smart Motorway projects have been cancelled.

By halting all progress and preserving the current jumbled situation in aspic, this announcement does very little for anyone - it is not a decisive commitment to anything, but rather a retreat from reason.

Who wins?

Not the road building industry, certainly, and not the campaigners against Smart Motorways. The AA and RAC, perversely campaigning for motorways to be narrowed back to three lanes, don’t get what they want. Motorists will continue to suffer multiple confusing types of Smart Motorway and, in many places, years of roadworks that will no longer produce capacity improvements; elsewhere they will no longer get improvement works at all.

The official press release is full of bluster about giving drivers confidence that the roads they drive on are safe - despite the fact that work to convert some existing Smart Motorways to a proven safer standard have been scrapped, and that Smart Motorways in general will remain. It also re-promises all the work that was already planned to install new refuges and improve the reliability of the brand-new Stopped Vehicle Detection.

There’s another reason mentioned in the announcement, though - one it’s quite happy to skip over quickly in order to get to all the good news. It’s there fleetingly in the first sentence and then barely mentioned again. The very first reason it gives for the announcement is “due to financial pressures”.

A policy with few winners? Click to enlarge
A policy with few winners? Click to enlarge

Inflation is high, and construction inflation higher still. The cost of infrastructure projects is spiralling, but the roads budget - set in five-year Road Periods - is inelastic. National Highways were already in the situation where it was going to be extremely difficult to deliver everything they had promised between 2020 and 2025, because the fixed budget needed to cover ever-rising costs. They had already started pushing some projects into the next period to save money.

Dropping billions of pounds of spending commitments is a great way to free up funds for the other things you have to do. It ensures some projects can still go ahead while kicking others into the long grass - long grass that is, now, on the far side of a general election. What happens to the road programme after 2025 might end up being someone else’s problem anyway.

If you really want to know who wins from an announcement like this, there is only ever one winner in government. It’s always the Treasury. The rest of us, no matter what we think of Smart Motorways or how we think the future ought to look, are left searching for fragments of good news in amongst this absence of a policy. 

Note: this is an emotive subject. We'll be particularly cautious with comment moderation.

Comments

Withheld 17 April 2023

The most balanced and best discussion I've seen on smart motorways anywhere. Unfortunately means you'll get a loss less clicks than the mainstream media manage. A mess and suspect nothing will be done to resolve until after the next election at the earliest.

ManomayLR 17 April 2023

Beautifully summed up. Non-announcements like these are just what we've come to expect from the government IMHO.

DHSR is confusing, yes, but it doesn't have to be. 

If the signage was made more clear (either "green arrow pointing down" or "red X" on the lane control signals, with speed limits shown on the variable message signs above) then we could convert ALR to DHSR and it should be a lot less confusing.

swissferry 17 April 2023

Thanks for writing this. I was getting depressed about the lack of reason in the numerous media articles about this which have appeared in recent days.

Fraser Mitchell 17 April 2023

Way back during the last Labour government, the Parliamentary Committee on Transport investigated hard-shoulder running. Witnesses included the police and the overwhelming opinion of witnesses was that abolishing hard shoulders was dangerous. This report should be available somewhere, (I'll try to find it). but looking back, it is obvious that ALT motorways were steam-rollered in, and all opposition totally ignored. The ministers of the day were complicit in this.

Andy 17 April 2023

Very good article. Would it be possible to add a source for smart motorways often being safer? The DfT stats don't seem to have Smart Motorways as a separate category

Anonymous 18 April 2023

My issue with smart motorways is they are not smart. You can have mile after mile of reduced speed because "report of obstruction/pedestrians/animals" where there is nothing (or maybe was but the signs are still showing). My favorite is where you pass the obstruction (say broken down vehicle) and then the signs warning of it start AFTER and then go on for miles. Other times when lanes are shown as closed but there is nothing there causing huge tailbacks as drivers move away from the closed lane(s).

It's that apparent lack of responsiveness of the "smart" element which really frustrates me. That and the concentration on speeding being the only thing bad (mostly because it is the cheapest to catch I assume) rather than people being told off for not keeping left, and forcing drivers to do daft manouvers like go from the left line all the way to the right, to overtake someone doing 60 in lane 3 (real scenario).

The technology just isnt/wasnt present to run the ALR motorways properly.

The word is a misnomer, that's all. Technology can only be as smart as the information fed into it. If you, as a road user, report an obstruction or breakdown in the wrong location (there's an article on Driver Location Signs here too, by the way) of course the signs are going to be wrong.

I've often maintained that there's nothing wrong with the technology, such as it is. The main problem is entirely human.

That and a willingness from the government to fund genuine change.

We were promised that the control room could quickly find a reported stranded vehicle via CCTV, and even that they'd do this themselves. This is clearly not happening. The suspicion is that the CCTV, and hence technology, doesn't work; not just that the information fed into is isn't smart.

In fairness, last time I encountered "REPORT OF LANE BLOCKED", I contacted the National Highways contact centre to tell them exactly which lane was blocked and where it is. 10 minutes later, the signs still hadn't been updated (according to Traffic England); it remained this way even after HATOs had arrived on the scene. This suggests the problem lies with the control room, and it's something NH will still need to resolve for many years to come.

There's usually a "report of obstruction" on the Preston section of the M6, and at J32, it suddenly Ends! There's never any obstruction, and everyone is advised to drive at 40.

Ref “the main problem is entirely human”

Who precisely does anyone think is driving vehicles?

If a system, any system, cannot cope with humans it is not fit for purpose.

I know you dont say this, but what echoes is the “if only people did X, our system would work fine”.

They are people. They have never done X and aren’t going to do X. If one’s system requires people to do specific things, and falls over if they don’t, one’s system is junk.

Managed/Smart/Digital motorways are junk.

They will continue to kill until they are widened properly, or reverted to HS at cost in congestion.

Meanwhile the snake oil officials and politicians who knew all this was rubbish but who profited career wise from pushing it, escape entirely untouched.

What still escapes me is why widening couldn’t have just led to discontinuous hard shoulders. Widen where the land is cheap/available, omit the HS at bridges/chokepoints etc which are the expensive bit.

The technology is not smart when it’s outsourced to disparate providers whose contracts are so woolly in terms of what they are and aren’t on point for, that is the problem!

That is a frustration and needs to be explained. We know this happens. A vehicle breaks down, signs go up to protect it, and a queue builds. The queue causes traffic to slow and a second breakdown happens in the queue (it is known that breakdowns are more likely in slow-moving traffic). The first breakdown gets removed (but not reported as such) but the second one is not reported. Hence what you saw. Most drivers never see the cause of a queue (and may not want to if it related to a fatal road accident)

Andrew BRANDISH 18 April 2023

A balanced article.
However, for me the biggest issue with Smart Motorways has always been incident management.
Have a simple breakdown on the hard shoulder of a conventional motorway and the traffic barely changes speed.
If the same happens on a Smart Motorway the traffic will effectively grind to a halt in all four lanes.
That’s when the issues start. It’s not so difficult for the Police or National Highways to fight their way through the congestion and reach the stranded vehicle, but getting a recovery vehicle to it is a different matter.

The Highways Agency believe that putting up Red Xs will suddenly create an access lane. In reality the lane is already blocked by traffic with nowhere to move to.

CCTV Smart signals and stopped vehicle detection simply doesn’t work well enough.
Change this scenario to a collision requiring a full emergency services response, will result in additional congestion.
Good luck getting an Ambulance or Fire engine to it.
Now you need a Highways Clean up crew and several recovery trucks. Good luck with that.

“Wrong way approach” could be considered but that is logistically difficult and takes time to organise.
Between the collision scene and the junction you propose to use as your entry point, MUST and checked.
Every vehicle entering to go the wrong way MUST be spoken to and reminded of the wrong way procedure.
In 25 years of patrolling motorways I think this was done not more than once at an incident I was dealing with.

The same can be said for other non motorway roads.
I recall one incident on the A406 which took hours to deal with because the Recovery and Cleanup simply got stuck in the traffic. All surrounding roads were at a standstill so trying to get beyond it and come the wrong way didn’t work.

I genuinely believe Smart Motorways are unsafe. But this is because we made them LESS safe.
With the number of vehicles not using lane 1 due to safety concerns, capacity has not been increased.
Return of a a continuous Hard Shoulder is my preferred option.

People apparently manage perfectly well on non-motorway dual carriageways without hard shoulders. So should they manage on motorways. If anything it should be easier with more running lanes than your average DC.

Continuous hard shoulders are not safe. Fact.

Even Highways England’s Smart Motorway All Lane Running Overarching Report refers to hard shoulders (along with Emergency Refuge Areas) as being a "place of relative safety" - presumably in comparison to a live lane.

Yes: hard shoulders are not safe. But they're safer than live lanes. Highways England says so.

To be fair, new dual carriageways have a 1m hard paved verge and a 1.2m set back to the VRS barrier. Often the VRS barrier is not required so vehicles can get most, if not all, of their vehicle off the inside lane.

Not so with "SMART" motorways. VRS is used extensively and the setback is only 1.2m. Usually a "V-shaped drainage channel within this 1.2m setback. Therefore nowhere to go for vehicles which need to get out of lane 1. Total nonsense for National Highways to suggest that dual carriageways are the same as "SMART" motorways - they aren't !!

But they *are* the same as smart motorways (I won't put it in erroneous quotes like you have) in terms of the actual makeup of the road. The 1.0m hard strip is present on both where the space is available. There are lay-bys - a whole 4.7m wide - if you need to get out of the way. And if you don't think VRS is used extensively on dual carriageways then you clearly haven't been on the A14 or A38.

Plus I'd rather have a barrier and not need it, than not have a barrier where it is needed.

Adding to the above. I am imagining the worst nightmare of a multiple collision, four lanes if stationary traffic in the rear blocking access by fire and rescue ( who on non smart hard shoulder motorways have the option of the hard shoulder, and then both fire and people trapped in vehicles, children especially.

Thomas Rixon 18 April 2023

This was a very well-balanced and informative article. Clearly there is still much to discuss and conclude regarding smart motorways. Thank you for the enlightening morning read!

Gryph L 18 April 2023

I don't buy at all that ALR is less safe than hard shoulders, personally.

I've been on hard shoulders for work and it's not exactly a laugh riot while HGVs are passing you as close as they do. If anyone here thinks that that 200mm wide ribbed line offers any protection, you're entirely mistaken. HGVs have been known to crash into fully-marked traffic vehicles because the driver happens to be watching porn on the laptop sat on their dashboard.

If they believe smart motorways are unsafe, I'd hate to see them drive on dual carriageway expressways like the A14, A38 and A46. In my view, if people can't see (or don't want to see!!) far enough ahead of their own vehicle to react to the unexpected, they shouldn't be on the roads at all.

Adam Lea 18 April 2023

Smart motorways are safe, it is the drivers who are dangerous by failing to pay attention, read the road ahead and driving at a speed such that they can stop in the distance they can see to be clear. The outrage over smart motorways has stemmed from a handful of cases of people ploughing into the back of a broken down vehicle in lane 1. Do people routinely drive into the back of vehicles that have broken down in lanes 2 or 3 that failed to reach the hard shoulder? Do people plough on regardless into debris on the carriageway, be that motorways or standard single carriageway roads? There seems to be a thing in the UK of trying to find any excuse to absolve drivers of the responsibility to PAY ATTENTION to what is happening in front of them as they are driving.

Humans make mistakes. Even the best drivers occasionally make mistakes or are briefly distracted. A system that does not allow people to make mistakes is not a safe system. Designing roads around human failures is a key principle of successful Vision Zero policies around the world.

If it's the case that people are not reliably able to recognise and react to a stopped car quickly enough from 70 mph, then we shouldn't be designing roads that require that they do.

Damian 18 April 2023

Its not the motorways that are unsafe it is the drivers. Rule 126 of the highway code: Drive at a speed that will allow you to stop well within the distance you can see to be clear.

Two things from that rule; to see you must be looking (not playing with your phone) and if your space is reduced you need to slow, to a halt if necessary.

CFardAbart 18 April 2023

A great, balanced article. Unlike the BBC News report that did a reasonable job of explaining how the signals were used to direct traffic around breakdowns but then decided to show a near-miss that was clearly in roadworks which would have had NO signals available!

This is down to budgets and politics in my view. A quick win for the present 'government' who are running out of (our) money who can use the announcement to say "We listened and scrapped what you hate, aren't we brilliant?" and leave the mess for the next administration.

Daniel Lee 19 April 2023

Thanks Chris - a balanced, researched and thoughtful article of the sort I haven't seen elsewhere.

I wonder how damaging the label 'smart motorways' was. As far as I can tell, there isn't anything particularly sophisticated about them, at least before Stopped Vehicle Detection was rolled out - cameras, variable gantry signs, paint, and human eyeballs. Did the label 'smart', which implies the motorway is automated in some way, help pave the way for fewer cameras, eyeballs, and refuge areas?

Anon 19 April 2023

Nothing is new.. I was at TRRL in 70's when those first 'controlled' signs were installed. Could show a lane closure OR an advisory speed At one stage those at TRRL travelling for work, with a passenger, on equipped M'Ways were asked to keep a log. On M4 trip to Wales: signs warned of blocked inside lane and advised 50. Passed 'clear' sign and THEN the inside lane was obstructed. Bad info worse than no info? I also heard from a colleague, that when the first gantries with mandatory lane closures were installed, he was at the control centre when a 'dignitary' arrived. The Officer in charge proceeded to demonstrate with live traffic and no incident how he could mark a lane as closed! It is not surprising that many drivers treat info with at least caution. Perhaps a device that disabled mobile comms at more that say 20mph would be a good crash preventer?

Passengers have mobile phones too, and may want to send safety related information.

TPR 19 April 2023

Moderate the comments please, Chris, as you promised. Keep them, for balance of argument. But a counter view from you would be most welcome.

Wonderful article, but introducing a hard shoulder is the way out of this problem, presto. When there's a hard shoulder, motorists can move beyond it. The safety is far better. The argument that camera detection should be better is still dumbfounded to me; it is based on a human response.

How expensive can drawing a few lines be, as oppose to expensive major schemes like the Birmingham West Bypass to relieve the conurbation?

I think there's a certain troll in the comments here. Sunak did the right thing, and kept to his manifesto, sure, one way or another. Trouble is, this is still no resolution that was promised.

Which you clearly outline by the multiple "no's" in your article which I found hilarious. Perhaps not the article or/and timing for finding things hilarious.

Perhaps I should not quote Wikipedia nor read it, as sources aren't always the best; not academic for that matter, or up to date, but the fact I can't call the current government out for their road policy with the new Online Safety Bill is worrying. I do understand that substantial efforts should be made to protect the internet, as long as we can speak our minds on certain policies.

Let's just take it back a step however - Brexit status quo could be kept if more money was pumped into reasonable road schemes, and I will not reveal which ones they should be. Certainly not a full-blown M67 across the Pennines. But the Thames Crossing scheme would certainly push more traffic onto the M2. Trade traffic, mostly.

To summarize, smart motorway's best and cheapest fix is to have a DHSR again. But more money should be pushed into redesigning existing infrastructure; all above, most of it is well past its designed purpose. Why can't we be as visionary as we were in the 60s, 70s? I don't buy the argument of "we have to make cuts" any longer. It is time to spend.

Another example - why are we spending so much towards redesigning HS2?

Thanks for the article, it has certainly evoked an emotive response, but one that I will not continue to argue if someone else thinks differently. Just that it's all coming out of our pockets, so let's make the money count.

Don’t worry, comment moderation is happening - several out and out rants and conspiracy theories have not made the grade already.

Not sure what the online safety bill has to do with any of this? It does many things but changing your ability to discuss domestic transport policy is not one of them. 

No... introducing a hard shoulder is NOT the way out of a problem, that does not even exist. If you think otherwise, you really have no concept of danger of safety on the motorway. A 200mm ribbed line protects nobody.

Highwayman 20 April 2023

Although most comments regarding Smart motorways have been heard before, I recently saw the very good point that up to 20% of HGV drivers using Smart motorways are from outside the UK. Little point making a strong case for educating UK motorists on how to use SMART motorways when HGVs are from outside the UK. They will be accustomed to driving on motorways with hard shoulders, which probably accounts for why so many HGVs drive in lane 2 ignoring lane 1. This may account for why the capacity improvements which SMART motorways have never, and will never, materialise.

hoghwayman 20 April 2023

Perhaps set the VRS back about 1.3m further, so that the total set back would be say 2.5m. Enough to get a car and almost all of an HGV clear of lane1. Make the surface relatively unattractive to use eg hatching so that it is clear that it is not a picnic or somewhere to stop for a few minutes for amenity use.
Hard shoulders as constructed on conventional motorways appear too inviting and almost attract unnecessary use. Making them relatively unattractive would discourage unwarranted stops and even if constructed to a reduced standard -say 2.5m would be provide a high degree of protection for vehicles that do breakdown with nowhere to go.

DJL 21 April 2023

It seems to me that we can get most/all of the safety benefits without any of the safety down-sides by doing everything the smart motorway does _except_ for removing the hard shoulder.
This will do nothing for capacity but should still bring those 20% safety improvements.

If people stopping in the hard shoulder unnecessarily is an actual problem (not just a perceived one) then I agree with hoghwayman that steps could be taken to make their use less attractive.
I also think that (for new constructions) the hard shoulder should be wider. This would reduce the problem of HGVs rear-ending stopped vehicles.
But maybe it doesn't need to be to the same surface standard for the entire width (cheaper construction, but same space still required)

Back in the 1960s and early 70s it was common for motorway hard shoulders to have a more lightweight construction, supported by fewer layers of road bed. This was done for cost reasons and because they weren’t expected to be used as much - essentially your reasoning. 

Unfortunately that proved a false economy, because routine maintenance often requires running traffic to be moved to the hard shoulder. By the 1970s it was already being found necessary to strip out and rebuild hard shoulders to full depth construction to permit this without the pavement failing. As a result the specification was changed and the hard shoulder needed to be built to the same depth and strength as the rest of the carriageway.

@Chris5156

If you closely I said partly.
i.e. the currently regulation width should be built to the current standard. But the extended width could potentially be done to a lower standard.

Anyway this sentence "routine maintenance often requires running traffic to be moved to the hard shoulder" seems like any argument to be having hard shoulders regardless of any possible safety concerns?

Sorry, I missed that. 

Hard shoulders certainly serve a multitude of purposes - “spare” carriageway width comes in handy for a variety of reasons. One of the trade offs that ALR necessitates, but which we are yet to really see, will come when these roads are next due major maintenance work in another 10-20 years. Without a hard shoulder the next round of resurfacing, barrier replacement and the like may have to be done with a reduction in the number of running lanes - something there has usually been a concerted effort to avoid on the busiest routes, and something that typically used to be possible thanks to the hard shoulder.

It's not just major maintenance that causes issues. Litter picking, grass cutting, bridge inspections, site surveys and changing light bulbs are all require lane closures on an ALR smart motorway.

The M27 has had a lane closed for five months, because somebody hit the bridge parapet. This could happen on any road, but on an ordinary motorway you'd just put cones on the hard shoulder and leave it. Because it's an ALR smart motorway, you have months of disruption over a relatively minor issue.

I agree that these issues are a clear drawback of smart motorways that should have received far more traction. When the viaduct replacement happened at Ray Hall, the M6's hard shoulder running had to be switched off, and it caused absolute chaos for a year. Not to mention the lengthy lane closures on the M25 to install more ERAs. These issues deserve more coverage.

I watched a programme on Channel 5 about motorway cops a few years back and they came across a couple having a kip on the hard shoulder. Wouldnt be so bad they were in fact British so should have known better! In fact the driver said he wasnt aware that the hard shoulder was for emergencies only. So people do use the hard shoulder when they shouldnt.

An NH traffic officer told me that they once came across a family having a picnic upstream of their vehicle. They had got the table and chairs out and were sat in the certain death zone!

Peter 21 April 2023

They should build some new roads ;)

Anonymous 21 April 2023

Roads don't kill people - poor inattentive drivers with no regard for the highway code do.

DING, someone has hit the nail on the head. We have smart motorways but dumb careless drivers, but blaming people for driving without due care and attention is an outrage on the poor innocent persecuted motorist, so it must be the road that is to blame.

I would argue that refuges over a mile apart is too spread out, and surely the technology exists to automatically detect a broken down vehicle in a live lane immediately rather than relying on imperfect humans and inadequate staffing (a perennial problem in the UK).

James Catmur 23 April 2023

While DHSR schemes are not great overall the first scheme (M42 ATM) reduced fatalities by 100% and FWI/KSI per HMVM by about 70%. That said it was more conservative in its approach (i.e. cost more)

Robert Gourley 23 April 2023

I seem to remember that back in the 2000s they were known as "managed motorways". I've wondered if they rebranded them to "smart" ones due to the proper management of them ceasing. I think some of the earliest managed motorways contained an emergency layby every few hundred metres and generally kept the hard shoulder, with it becoming a lane only at peak times of day. Many of the newer ones have done away with the hard shoulder altogether (all-lane running) and seem to have an emergency layby only every couple of miles. I felt that smart motorways presented a safety risk when all-lane running ones first started to appear, and it turns out that I was right. Personally I feel that smart motorways do not particularly reduce journey times in the majority of cases, most notably due to their variable speed limits, and so am pretty glad that the government may be giving up on new ones. I think that widening busy stretches of motorway to four lanes in each direction combined with a hard shoulder would probably be as cheap as upgrading a motorway to an all-running section of smart motorway.

Charles Stuart 23 April 2023

I have always thought that the best money-saving option with a good enough level of safety would be to widen motorways where needed and put in hard shoulders where it doesn't mean destroying existing structures or spending too much money. Thus, in the photograph of a motorway with ALR, there is a dot matrix sign followed by a gantry with overhead speed limit signs. These two things would remain with a hard shoulder inserted for the short distance, maybe 200yards, between them. Then the other side of the gantry there would be another section of hard shoulder to the next obstacle. It would sort of reverse the current situation of long stretches of road with no hard shoulder and a short refuge, and make it short sections without a hard shoulder between longer sections of hard shoulder. Parts of the M4 near Slough were like that for decades and may still be like that, though it may have been widened - I've not driven there for several years.

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