Are smart motorways really a better option? These facts will help you decide
They seem to be everywhere at the moment – smart motorways are taking over, if not the world, then large sections of our road network.
The motorways make use of the hard shoulder, either permanently or at busy times, in order to improve congestion.
On the M1 near Nottinghamshire, junctions 23a to 25 are currently being upgraded to smart motorway, with work expected to finish at the end of this year.
However, they have proved controversial because in case of illness or crash breakdown, there is nowhere for drivers to pull over, unless they can make it to the next emergency refuge (currently spaced an average one-and-a-quarter miles apart).
There has also been concerns about access by emergency vehicles to accidents when traffic is using the former hard shoulder.
There are three types of ‘smart motorway’.
All lane running motorways use the hard shoulder permanently as a running lane for traffic. Lane one (formerly used solely as the hard shoulder) is only closed to traffic – via overhead and verge-mounted signs – in the event of an incident. In April 2014 eight miles of the M25 between junctions 23 and 25 became England’s first section of motorway to be run like this.
Controlled motorways have three or more lanes with variable speed limits, but retains a hard shoulder. The hard shoulder should only be used in a genuine emergency.
Dynamic hard shoulder running motorways open up the hard shoulder as a running lane to traffic at busy periods to ease congestion. The scheme, which was initially developed on the M42 in the Midlands, is now in operation on sections of the M42, M1, M6, M4 and M5.
So do they improve our roads or not?
We had a look at accident statistics on one section of the M1 which has already been converted to all lane running smart motorway, from Junction 32 to Junction 35a, near Sheffield.
The work started in January 2015, was completed in March 2017, and cost £106m.
These are the accident figures from 2014 to 2017 inclusive:
In other words, the number of serious and fatal accidents did not rise significantly in 2017, when it was smart motorway for most of the year.
However, did it take longer to deal with those accidents?
The chart below shows the average time it took for the motorway to be cleared after fatal and serious accidents from 2014 to 2017 inclusive:
So again, there was not a significant increase in 2017 compared to the previous year. However, there has been big rise in delays in 2015 (when work started), 2016 and 2017, compared to 2014 before the work began.
The RAC says it supports smart motorways in general, but is worried about all lane running schemes.
RAC chief engineer David Bizley said: “Whilst supporting smart motorways as a cost-effective and relatively rapid way of increasing motorway capacity, the RAC has repeatedly expressed concerns about the latest design which turns the hard shoulder on motorways into a permanent running lane. These concerns are widely shared by other industry groups, as well as by our members and others who regularly use motorways.
“The message to Government and to Highways England is clear – we should apply the principles that have proven to be safe on smart motorways such as the M42 [which has a dynamic hard shoulder] until such time as the evidence exists to show all lane running is as safe as conventional motorways with a hard shoulder, and as smart motorways with a dynamic hard shoulder which only open to traffic as a running lane when the extra capacity is needed.
“Motorways are our safest roads but, because of the speeds at which vehicles travel on them, the consequences of an accident can be severe in terms of loss of life and serious injury. We need the extra capacity that smart motorways will deliver but we must not put the safety of our motorways at risk by allowing insufficient time to prove the safety of new designs.”
Near Nottinghamshire, junction 23a to junction 24 is becoming controlled motorway, while junction 24 to junction 25 will be all lane running motorway.
Work started in March 2017, is due to be completed end of 2018, and is costing £120m.
Dr John Disney, a senior lecturer specialising in transport at Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University, said: “I think Highways England likes smart motorways because they are a cheaper and less disruptive means of adding a fourth lane to a motorway – without expensive widening schemes that often require new overbridges to be built and take the traffic closer to people’s houses.
“One of the main problems seems to be drivers ignoring the RED X sign on the gantry closing the hard shoulder when a vehicle has broken down in it. I understand that this may soon become a Fixed Penalty Offence with 3 points.
“Maybe the signage should have been the other way round: ie use a green light to show when the Hard Shoulder is clear and available for use.
“The aim of Variable Speed Limits is to increase capacity and maintain a steady flow of traffic, even if this is slower than the 70mph “norm” that motorists expect to achieve on the motorway. This certainly improves fuel consumption and lowers some emissions. Whether it is enough to persuade motorists to switch to trains is a moot point as it’s the total door-to-door journey time which is important.”
Highways England says lots of research and consultation has been carried out to establish whether smart motorways can improve safety and congestion.
A spokesman said: “Smart motorways mean increased road capacity faster and at less cost than traditional road widening schemes. And they are just as safe – often safer.
“We already have evidence of the benefits that a smart motorway scheme can bring. The first smart motorway scheme (known then as a managed motorway) opened to traffic on the M42 motorway in 2006. Analysis of data gathered since opening 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
“We’re committed to safety in every aspect of our work. Our all lane running smart motorway design is based on robust analysis by experienced professionals using tested methodologies.
“This analysis demonstrates that our safety objectives were likely to be achieved with road user safety no worse than before all lane running is implemented. Our initial results on the M25 all lane running sections indicate that this is the case.”