The government has announced its smart motorway plan, an 18-point process, aimed at improving safety and driver confidence on smart motorways. It comes after figures revealed there had been more than 30 deaths on motorways where the hard shoulder was used as an additional lane, but does it do enough to allay the fears of classic vehicle drivers?
Transport secretary Grant Shapps launched a ‘stocktake’ into the controversial concept in January, following widespread safety concerns. The lack of a hard shoulder is at the heart of the issue, with broken-down vehicles that can’t reach a refuge area forced to remain in live lanes with no protection against oncoming traffic.
Perhaps surprisingly, evidence compiled in the government report shows that in most ways, smart motorways are as safe as or safer than conventional ones due to managed speed limits and warnings of incidents ahead. The statistics suggest that fatal casualty rates are lower while injury rates are slightly higher. Within this overall picture, crucially, the specific risk related to live lane breakdowns has increased.
There is confusion over the different types of smart motorways. There are three types in the UK, with two opening the hard shoulder to traffic. Controlled motorways include variable speed limits but retain a hard shoulder. All lane-running, however, keeps the hard shoulder open all the time, while dynamic motorways open the hard shoulder to traffic when it’s at high volumes. As part of the proposals, Mr Shapps acknowledged that dynamic hard shoulders are confusing and will be converted into all lane running by the end of March 2025.
Other measures revolve around refuge areas and detection. The original M42 pilot scheme placed refuge areas around 600 metres apart, but expansion has seen this increase to as much as 1.5 miles. Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) is meant to spot stranded vehicles and prompt a lane closure, but it’s only installed on two M25 sections totalling 24.2 miles. Break down anywhere else and you’re reliant on being spotted or raising the alarm yourself.
Under the plan, SVD deployment will be “substantially” accelerated to cover the entire smart motorway network within the next 36 months. Future spacing between refuge areas will be set “where feasible” at three quarters of a mile, or a maximum of one mile. Where refuge area spacing is longer than that, Highways England traffic officer patrols will be increased to try and reduce the emergency response time from 17 minutes to 10 minutes.
Refuge areas themselves will be made more visible, and there will be more traffic signs to direct motorists towards them. Reviews will also be conducted into their width and the government wants to allow roadside patrols and recovery workers to use red flashing lights to improve safety.
An additional 10 emergency areas will be installed on the M25, and depending on the impact of doing so, Highways England will then investigate whether to retrofit additional emergency areas on existing smart motorways where they are more than a mile apart. Specific areas where there have been clusters of incidents – the M6 Bromford viaduct and on the M1 at Luton, Sheffield and Wakefield – will be investigated to see if changes are likely to make a difference.
The DfT will also work with sat-nav providers to ensure emergency areas are clearly displayed on-screen. What’s more, the law has been changed to enable automatic detection of motorists who ignore the red X sign that signifies a closed lane. More cameras will be installed to boost enforcement of violations, which carry a £100 fine and three penalty points.
Finally, there will be investment into education too. The government reports that many motorists do not know exactly what a smart motorway is and are not aware of when they are on one. In response, £5million will go on campaigns to inform motorists about smart motorways and using them safely. Launching later in 2020, these will include advice on what to do if drivers break down on a smart motorway.
The action plan will “allow us to retain the benefits of smart motorways while addressing the concerns that have been identified,” said transport secretary Grant Shapps.
Reaction has been mixed. AA president Edmund King said: “We applaud the current transport secretary for instigating the review and taking this issue very seriously. We believe the intention to place emergency refuse areas at every three-quarters of a mile is a great outcome and what we have called for over the last decade.”
However, RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes pointed out the flaws in the plan, believing that dynamic hard shoulders are not the main issue: “This is a red herring and in reality, there were never enough of these schemes built for drivers to get used to them before the switch was made, without any consultation, to building smart motorways that have the hard shoulder permanently removed. Only time will tell whether all lane running schemes really are an improvement”.
“The safe running of any smart motorway heavily depends on drivers being able to see, and react to, red X signage indicating where lanes are closed. We are disappointed that the review has not looked at the spacing of red X gantry signage as we believe in too many instances signs are spaced too far apart.
“On the basis that all lane running smart motorways remain the default, the commitment to install stopped vehicle detection technology on the whole network is a positive step, but a three-year timeframe will feel like an eternity considering the concerns many drivers have”.
So, while moves to improve refuge areas and education are welcome, the hard shoulder does not look as if it will be making a return. If anything, there will be fewer instances of it being retained, which is sure to disappoint motorists. There are also questions as to whether proper research was done in the transition from dynamic to all-lane running, as well as over the timeframe for improvements, which critics feel is too long.
Whether the plans will help to mitigate the fears of classic vehicle drivers on smart motorways remains to be seen. Will you be happy to use your classic on such roads if the action plan is realised, or are the risks still too much? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.