The merits of smart motorways were passionately debated at the 2019 National Road Safety Conference, with contributors arguing the evidence suggests they are as safe as conventional motorways, but others saying they don’t feel that way for drivers.
First introduced in 2006 (on the M42), smart motorways use variable speed limits to manage traffic and tackle stop-start congestion.
There are two types of smart motorway in the UK. The first, often referred to as ‘dynamic’, is where the hard shoulder is opened to traffic during busy periods. The second is where the hard shoulder is open all the time.
The controversy surrounding smart motorways relates to safety – despite Highways England’s repeated assurances they are as safe as the wider motorway network.
During the Question Time session at National Conference, Neil Worth, road safety officer for GEM Motoring Assist, asked for the panellists views on smart motorways, sparking an intense debate.
Smart motorways – evidence says they are safe
Question Time panelist Richard Owen, CEO of Agilysis, said it was important to be led by the evidence – while acknowledging more needs to be done to shift public opinion.
He said: “The evidence produced by Highways England shows they [smart motorways] are at least as safe – or safer – than normal motorways.
“I’m always led by the evidence – but you’ve got to recognise motorways are dangerous places and that enough people are scared of using them already.
“We need to make people think they are safe, as well as them being evidentially safe.”
‘So far, so good’
Nick Adderley, chief constable of Northamptonshire Police and the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead for motorcycling, agreed that the evidence points towards the fact they are working.
He said: “The evidence certainly for the parts of the motorway we police in Northamptonshire show that travel times have decreased and the number of accidents has reduced.
“The evidence points towards they are working – certainly on the M1. [It’s a case of] so far so good.”
However, Mr Adderley did acknowledge concerns about perceptions – admitting he himself feels insecure using a smart motorway.
He added: “If a vehicle does break down, it is in a really precarious position with no off route – and that bothers me as an individual and a father.”
Education must be used to ease fears
Highways England recently conceded it is unlikely that any more dynamic smart motorways will be built, because too many motorists do not understand them.
Discussing whether smart motorways should continue to be implemented, panellist Philippa Young, vice chair of Road Safety GB, said it was important to understand the different types of schemes.
She said: “It’s important to understand the two differences – we have the dynamic smart motorways and the more static ones.
“Highways England themselves have come out and said they will take a halt to implementing dynamic smart motorways and carry out an extensive review.
“In that sense, it feels too early for us to make a decision [on whether to continue implementing].
“If they are to stay, and I think there are some benefits, I think education has to be a part of that intervention.”
‘Nonsense’ to say they are working – Edmund King
Another controversial element of smart motorways are the emergency refuge areas – and what happens to vehicles which break down in a live lane.
At present, smart motorways have emergency refuge areas a maximum of 1.5 miles apart – around 75 seconds of driving. The refuge areas have an emergency telephone and are wider than the hard shoulder to enable drivers to get further away from traffic.
Speaking passionately about the issue, Edmund King OBE, president of the AA, called for Highways England to double the number of emergency refuge areas.
He also criticised the amount of time it currently takes to reach a vehicle which has broken down in a live lane.
Mr King said: “Smart motorways, you’ve got to understand where they have come from and what’s changed.
“The M42 [the UK’s first smart motorway] worked because it had laybys every 500 metres.
“Then with no consultation, they were rolled out to the other motorways with laybys at every 2.5kms.
“38% of breakdowns on smart motorways are in live lanes. Highways England’s own research shows on average it takes 17 minutes to spot a vehicle in a live lane.
“They also answered a FOI request which said after those 17 minutes, it takes 17 minutes to get a vehicle there to move it – that’s more than half an hour, in a live lane, praying that people will abide by a ‘Red X’, praying that a HGV won’t come up.
“So, it’s nonsense to say they are working based on a study on the M25 – which is not the same as the M1.
“One 60 mile stretch of the M1 has had five deaths in 10 months – all of them north bound, all of them vehicles broken down on a live lane.
“So the very minimum we need is double the number of emergency refuge areas, and until we do that, we (the AA) will continue campaigning against it.”
Highways England has committed to reducing this distance to one mile apart on new smart motorway schemes (beginning construction in 2020).
The Government agency also says it is enhancing emergency areas by installing extra signage, using the internationally recognised SOS text and marking the bays in a high-visibility orange colour to make them as easy as possible to spot.
GEM welcomes Government review
In October, GEM Motoring Assist described the situation as ‘unacceptable’ – calling for roll out of schemes to be halted until a ‘proper safety review’ has been completed.
Later that month, the DfT announced it would conduct an “evidence stock take” to gather facts and make recommendations.
Speaking from the audience, Neil Worth, GEM’s road safety officer, said his organisation’s membership feels smart motorways are unsafe and welcomed the review.
“We’ve done some work with Highways England control centres, we’ve seen how they work, but the general view of the membership is that the issue needs to be looked at properly.
“The Transport Committee said two years ago ‘don’t do any more’ and it’s carried on.
“We’re quite happy that they [the DfT] have introduced a review because that gives us time to do some education around how they work and how people should be using them.”