Watch: smart motorways passionately debated at National Conference

13.54 | 27 November 2019 | | 4 comments

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.”

Smart motorways were debated at the 2019 National Road Safety Conference

‘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.

An emergency refuge area. Image: Highways England

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.”



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    It is assumed that if a vehicle breaks down, it will conveniently do so in lane number one, but supposing it happens in lane three with no time or space to move across? An apparent malfunction in a vehicle driving at speed in lane three may cause the driver to over-react, panic even and come to a stop. If so, the situation is no different from conventional M/ways – a stationary vehicle in any lane may cause a pile-up if following drivers are not paying attention and in control.

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (2) | Disagree (62)

    > I feel less safe on these roads than they were before and I’m sure many people would agree

    I don’t think it’s a case of feeling less safe because of the removal of a hard shoulder, but I suspect feeling more constrained.

    Not necessarily referring to the proliferation of HADECS cameras, but something that is often pointed out on this site: have a look at this article’s anchor image – a refuge, but immediately followed by several hundred yards of barrier.

    I understand the need for it (protection against collisions with extra, bulky signage mandated by smart motorways, etc) but with this protection in place, one can’t exactly get at least partially out of the way like on most dual carriageways

    David Weston, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
    Agree (4) | Disagree (42)

    Highways England are relying on inappropriate evidence for what they appear to say. I don’t think people are against the variable speed limits that can improve flow but the deluded concept that you are safe if broken down in a live lane and can get to a refuge area. Vehicles can be immobilised for a number of reasons and not be able to progress or limp.

    The other misconception is that we don’t understand a ‘Red X’. However in the time a vehicle stops and the lane is closed (spotted by an operator or AI) …how many vehicles have passed through and then have to react to a stationery object? Or, not have room to cross a congested adjacent lane or panic and cause a pile up?

    They assume everyone driving is up to scratch with the highway code, not tired or distracted on their phones or music or arguing with a passenger not consumed alcohol or drugs and familiar with UK roads.

    Not having a hard shoulder also hinders responders.

    I feel less safe on these roads than they were before and I’m sure many people would agree. Dropping a hard shoulder was a cost cutting exercise that has created long term problems and reflects very poor planning without consultation with the users of those roads.

    Agree (141) | Disagree (2)

    Having just spent a lovely, relaxing week driving through France, on Monday I drove from Portsmouth to Wirral. As an “Advanced” driver and not too long retired Grade 6 ADI I (like Nick Adderley) felt surprisingly uncomfortable, tense and stressed on the sections of “smart motorway” used and was glad to get back on the familiar old fashioned bits of the M6, M56 and M53. The problem is (particularly compared to France) we have too many vehicles and not enough space.Edmund King’s call for more refuges is just one step towards what needs to be done. Education is paramount and my impression is that good luck rather than good judgement is often what prevents more collisions.

    Agree (20) | Disagree (3)

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