Smart Motorways

Smart Motorways

Let me start by saying one thing: I hate hysteria. I try to deal with facts. Contrary to popular belief something can be both good and bad at the same time; you can have reservations about something but still appreciate why it works; you can be supportive of something but still appreciate it has flaws. It doesn't make for interesting content, but it's true.

There is one bias I do need to declare: I detest Highways England. It's not because of the roadworks - I actually feel sorry for them there; they've inherited a road network which is falling apart at the seams and their job is to keep it going with a tiny budget. No, the reason I hate them is that they care way too much about their image, with too many patronising and inaccurate press releases which talk about how much they care but then don't really demonstrate it.

That is one of the reasons smart motorways have been such a PR disaster. The public have been telling Highways England they don't like them, and Highways England have been responding by talking about how popular smart motorways are. They should get their publicity department to feel the mood a little.

Trouble is, the public hate everything, so I wouldn't worry about their disgust. Are the public right to be concerned about Highways England's ambitions? I thought I'd compare the reported positives and corresponding negatives to put the dramatic newspaper headlines into perspective and allow you to form your own opinion based on each argument and counter-argument.

Motorway traffic

Reported ProsReported Cons
Smart motorways should be quick and easy to build, because they require very little new tarmac. [relative to full online or offline widening]Construction times are still alarmingly long. M3 J2-4a, M6 J11a-13 and M60 J8-20 are now all thankfully complete, but who's to blame for the overruns and the mistakes? In conversation with Highways England contractors were blamed; they have also since reduced the reliance on night-time work. One hopes lessons have been learned.
Hard shoulders are extremely dangerous places, as the risk of someone straying over the line and colliding with a stopped vehicle is high. Despite this, a lot of people stopping on the hard shoulder are doing it to check their phones, use the sat nav or even have a nap. Reckless stupidity is to blame for hard shoulders being removed, and accidents should be fewer without them.The remaining genuine emergencies would be safer by the side of the road than stranded in a live lane. Being stranded in a live lane, although unpleasant, would not be very dangerous if the scene were protected by electronic warnings (and if those warnings were respected) - what the public are worried about is those occasions (or reported occasions, if you prefer) where this has not happened.
In an emergency, it is often possible to drive to a 'refuge area' (lay-by).'Often' is not assuring people; there are still plenty of circumstances where someone can become stranded in the road. More refuge areas would be an obvious solution, but that would cost more money.
The new 'refuge areas' are safer than hard shoulders, and much less likely to be abused. They also mean you can stop right outside an emergency phone. People are being watched on CCTV so less likely to mess around.It is very dangerous to leave a refuge area without getting Highways England to close a lane first, as you have no space to get up to speed. This wastes a lot of time, disrupts the traffic, and a lot of people won't bother - either because they don't want to or because they didn't see or understand the warnings. Also some drivers do still use them to take naps - hence the signs hastily added to the M25 refuge areas.
Accidents and incidents are much safer with all the CCTV coverage and electronic signs to manage traffic and provide information.Despite the benefits of sophisticated incident detection, there are still far too many stories of stranded vehicles not being detected, even on brand new smart motorways. Sure, this might not be a fair representation, but any mistake is alarming. Likewise I loathe to get on board the 'signs left on long after the incident cleared' bandwagon, but it does happen and does reveal that the system is not as perfect as the publicity implies. Is there not enough CCTV? Not enough operators? Too much automation?
Removing the hard shoulder significantly increases capacity [simple maths: four lanes is better than three].That additional capacity is lost again every time there is an accident or incident, which will require at least one lane to be closed. On a busy motorway this will happen frequently.
The electronic variable speed limits do further increase capacity, despite people making a nonsense argument about slowing down being worse. The idea is to keep the flow smooth, and if you see a speed limit with no congestion then it must be working.Let's be honest, speed limits and speed cameras are annoying. Although that's an irresponsible attitude, you're never going to be able to convince drivers to think differently. In particular, the variable speed limits don't always react perfectly to the conditions (they'd need to be psychic if they did), and they can change several times within a few miles.
All the electronic equipment can make setting up roadworks, especially in an emergency, much safer. Gone are the days of running across the motorway while carrying huge metal signs, now the computer can do it. The industry appears to be moving towards doing most routine maintenance using lane closures during quiet periods, or closing the road all together.With smart motorways, all the available tarmac is being used. When it comes to doing major roadworks - which will be needed in 20 or so years' time - there is no space to do any work. They will most likely have to close one or two lanes, taking the capacity back to what it used to be. This is a huge concern which receives very little attention. During 2014, we had daily chaos on the M6 (much worse than usual) because the road needed the electronic system to function normally, and the power had to be turned off as part of the J8 roadworks. Admittedly that particular system (DHS) is no longer used, but the problem is still clear.
All of the technology available does increase capacity and safety. It also future-proofs our road network in exciting ways: smart motorways are full of data, which makes them ripe for all-sorts of autonomous technology.We are making our roads dependent on technology. There are plans in place to deal with power cuts and problems at the control centre, but have they been able to counter every possible problem? Do we even fully understand the risks of 'Big Brother' roads? We will have to put our faith in the government's implementation of technology for this one.
Smart motorways squeeze more capacity out of our existing infrastructure. This means fewer people will take unsuitable short-cuts through village streets. The saying "new roads always fill up with traffic" isn't such a bad thing: it means people have found a better option for them.We are trying to pack more and more vehicles onto the same piece of tarmac. This means problems will potentially be more disruptive. It's more like "don't put all your eggs in one basket". Also, motorway congestion is only the start of the problem - in most suburban areas a major cause of traffic is that the local road network can't absorb all the traffic trying to leave (M27 J3-12). Smart motorways can't solve that, though they can manage the queue.
The vast majority of high-speed roads in Great Britain (but not Northern Ireland, weirdly) do not have a hard shoulder, so losing one is hardly a new experience for drivers.The nature of smart motorways generally being busy roads with many constraints means they are more claustrophobic, with lanes running close to the concrete barrier and barriers running along most of verge to protect all the signs. So the experience is similar but not quite the same.
Smart motorways actually have the facility to increase the motorway speed limit to 100mph. While most drivers would take that as a positive, it's not a likely one. More realistically, you could use the signs to apply different rules for different vehicle types, making the road much more flexible.If anything, given the air pollution and congestion, daytime motorway drivers in some regions are going to be getting used to lower speed limits instead. As for different rules for different vehicles [which is not currently set up] - that's only a positive if it benefits you!
Despite rumours you might hear, the emergency services haven't publicly criticised smart motorways and appear to enjoy the benefits associated with them. On busy roads like the M6 in the West Midlands they no longer use the hard shoulder to carry out their business anyway, preferring the safety of the depots at Perry Barr and Doxey even for routine stops. Although people think the police find the hard shoulder useful for getting to the front of the queue, it is often blocked by vehicles anyway.Communication is needed between the police and Highways to manage an accident scene, as you would expect, and the results are not always flawless. Closing lanes to give the police space isn't a dependable solution given the public's appalling lack of respect for lane closures.
Despite the proliferation of so-called "stealth" cameras, there are very few first-hand stories of people being unfairly caught by speed cameras.People still aren't comfortable with speed cameras, and you can't assure them by saying the current leniency will never be reduced - even though people have been making this argument for 20+ years. Driving standards on smart motorways are absolutely appalling so maybe more enforcement would not be a bad thing.
The government have been running lots of education campaigns to tell people about smart motorways.They could make it simpler. You now have smart motorways and expressways, which are practically the same thing: Highways England have indicated that the highest class of expressway will have motorway regulations and smart technology, which sounds rather like a smart motorway. Then you have A-roads, which sometimes look the same (A556 Bowdon) but have less technology and different laws, and the signs are a different colour. You're allowed to stop in a lay-by on an A-road for any reason you like, but you are strictly prohibited from stopping in a refuge area on a motorway even though they are practically the same thing. Some A-roads have hard shoulders, but those roads are still, strictly speaking, a class below smart motorways, which don't. And don't get confused between Digital Motorways, which might just be the new term for Smart Motorways, which was the new term for Managed Motorways, which was the new umbrella term for Dynamic Hard Shoulder (DHS), All Lane Running (ALR or sometimes SMALR) and Variable Speed Limits (VSL), which were a response to Active Traffic Management (ATM). Why do the public need to know all these phrases? Clearly they do need to, but why are they making it so complicated?

Motorway traffic

Conclusion

Are smart motorways any good? The evidence is there: they reduce journey times and increase safety.

There is a down-side that when things go wrong they will be more disruptive. Whereas you might have lost an hour of your day on the M25 every day, now you will normally have a free-flowing journey - until something goes wrong and you end up losing two hours. But overall the results are positive.

You can, if you like, say they are putting a price on safety: smart motorways could be safer but more refuge areas, more loops, more operators and more signs would cost more money. This is hardly a great revelation: no government has ever pretended to have an infinite pot of money and the investment has to be drawn somewhere.

A lot of the drawbacks with smart motorways appear to stem from failures on the part of drivers: either a failure to keep up to date with the latest information, or a failure to obey some pretty simple instructions. Drivers being dim-witted will not come as a surprise (in fact you could attribute just about every supposedly-dangerous road in the UK to this), and unless we have the resources to stamp out poor behaviour through enforcement we will sadly have to consider poor behaviour when designing road schemes. This will be why Dynamic Hard Shoulder has been ruled out, and why the messages on MS4 signs have been revised several times.

Personally, I think smart motorways are a sticking plaster to carry our crippled road network through a few more election cycles. I don't doubt the short-term benefits at all and in fact I actively appreciate them; they have made the M6 slightly more tolerable, for starters. What I do worry about is what we will do to increase capacity again when it's next needed: how do you improve on a smart motorway? [Without demolishing the West Midlands to widen the M5.] It's almost as if we are kicking the can down the road until mythical 'technology' saves the day.

Whatever your view, I'm not sure anything is going to change. The public have made up their minds that they don't like them [as per the vitriol and drivel posted under every Highways England press release], while Highways England have decided we need more of them. The idea is that smart motorway has become the new standard, and new roads like the Lower Thames Crossing will open as one from day one.

I'm not sure how you will change public opinion because you can't counter an emotional 'argument', however good your facts.

Didn't MPs recently say smart motorways are dangerous?

Yes they did. I would totally ignore them - not necessarily because their point is wrong, but because MPs have absolutely no qualification to talk about road safety.

I know some people will say that highways employees will pretend smart motorways are safe to protect their own backs. Let's assume you're right for a second. At least those people still have a tiny bit of experience to base their arguments on. MPs are also protecting their own backs; in this case making knee-jerk reactions to make themselves look good. I cannot think of anyone I would listen to less.

Why isn't the rest of the world building smart motorways?

Actually the fundamentals of smart motorways: variable speed limits, CCTV coverage, electronic (variable) message signs are all being adopted across Europe and further afield. Not all motorway-equivalents in continental Europe have hard shoulders either.

The forerunner to smart motorways was based on a project across the Netherlands. Eventually some of these roads had to be re-built with an even higher capacity, but it bought them some more time and they still use it across the country, as do Sweden.

Smart motorways are still spoken about like they are exclusive to Britain, but then Britain does have very busy motorways running through densely-developed areas which creates a unique problem to deal with. [That's a generalisation which obviously isn't always exclusive to Britain, but it is something the casual visitor to a typical destination like northern France will have picked up on. Also although "smart motorway" is a Highways England term, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland do use some smart technology in their urban areas too.]

Why can't I comment on this page?

I've sifted through way too many emails calling me a propagandist for Highways England for one life, sorry! If you wanted to say that, you can assume I've got the message.

Tedious about the author bit

I like to explore, think about heavy machinery and write lists. I produce radio with an attitude accurately described as "amusingly surly".

I have four years experience working with large operators and councils in the UK transport industry. I am very glad I turned I back on it after such a short period of time. Even so, I try to remain well-read and offer more than just armchair enthusiasm.

I'd like to think I know my limits.

Legally bland

Any similarities with real-life events or wealthy international firms is probably coincidental. No products endorsed. I'm powered by Monster Munch.

© 2019 Johnathan Randall.