Are smart motorways a smart idea or an ill-considered solution?

New work on smart motorways is halted in the UK as campaigners argue removing the hard shoulder is dangerous

In 2014, England officially introduced the concept of a ‘Smart motorway’ as a cheaper option to ease congestion and increase capacity on the roads. Very simply, they removed the hard shoulder as a place of refuge and allowed live traffic to use them as an additional lane. What began as a cost efficient and environmentally more sound solution to traffic build up on certain stretches of motorway, has now become a controversial and to some, deadly decision to accommodate the growing number of road users and consequent long queues.

There are three types of smart motorway; ‘All lane running’ ‘Dynamic hard shoulder’ and ‘Controlled motorway’.  

All Lane Running

ALR schemes are actioned only when there has been an incident on the motorway. When that is the case, the hard shoulder is opened up to live traffic and the closure of one or more lanes will be signalled by a red X on an overhead gantry and/or on a verge-mounted sign, meaning you must exit that lane as soon as possible. 

Dynamic Hard Shoulder

DHS schemes involve opening the hard shoulder as a running lane to traffic at busy periods in order to ease congestion. On these stretches a solid white line differentiates the hard shoulder from the normal carriageway – Overhead signs on gantries indicate whether the hard shoulder is open to traffic. 
The hard shoulder must not be used if the signs over it are blank or display a red X, except in the case of an emergency. Other variable message signs will say ‘hard shoulder for emergency use only’.

Controlled Motorway

Controlled motorways are perhaps the most confusing of them all…if you are driving on a section of controlled motorway, it will have three or more lanes with variable speed limits, but retain a traditional hard shoulder. The hard shoulder should only be used in a genuine emergency. These variable speed limits are displayed on overhead gantry signs – if no speed limit is displayed the national speed limit is in place. Speed cameras are used to enforce these.

How dangerous are smart motorways?

In the last 7 years, as many as 63 people have died on a stretch of smart motorway. If you happen to break down or have a minor accident in one of these areas with no hard shoulder or refuge site, you could find yourself a sitting duck as live traffic continues to speed around you, often with no warning of the upcoming hazard or sudden change in the speed limit.
The evidence however is confusing, with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps saying: “While our initial data shows that smart motorways are among the safest roads in the UK, it’s crucial that we go further to ensure people feel safer using them.”
Personal Injury collisions are reported to be down due to the less congested traffic, but live lane fatality rates between moving and stopped vehicles is more than a third higher on All lane running motorways. Due to the pressure from protestors and other outside sources, the government has put a 5 year halt on any plans for new stretches of smart motorway, although those already under way will be finished. The data will be collected and assessed over the next few years and a decision made about the future of our motorways by 2027.

What can the Government do to protect our motorists on these motorways?

Some, but not all of the measures suggest by Grant Shapps back in 2020;
Abolishing the confusing “dynamic hard shoulder” smart motorways, where the hard shoulder operates only part-time and is a live running lane the rest of the time
Substantially speeding up the deployment of “stopped vehicle detection” technology across the entire “all lane running” smart motorway network, so stopped vehicles can be detected and the lanes closed more quickly.
Faster attendance by more Highways England traffic officer patrols on smart motorways where the existing spacing between places to stop in an emergency is more than one mile, with the aim of reducing the attendance time from an average of 17 minutes to 10 minutes

Reducing the distance between places to stop in an emergency to three quarters of a mile where feasible so that on future schemes motorists should typically reach one every 45 seconds at 60mph. The maximum spacing will be 1 mile
Installing 10 additional emergency areas on the existing M25 smart motorways on the section of smart motorway with a higher rate of live lane stops and where places to stop in an emergency are furthest apart 
More traffic signs giving the distance to the next place to stop in an emergency, so you will almost always be able to see a sign. Typically, these will be between approximately 330 and 440 yards apart
More communication with drivers. An additional £5 million on national targeted communications campaigns to further increase awareness and understanding of smart motorways, how they work and how to use them confidently.