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Smart motorways: What they are, why people want them removed, and the new safety measures

Highway England has come under scrutiny and been urged to abandon plans for smart motorways.

Smart motorways have been introduced in several parts of the UK already and many more are currently in the works.

The smart motorway network covers around 500 miles in England, with an additional 300 miles planned by 2025. With more than 20 sections of 'smart motorways' on seven different motorways currently.

There have been calls for the work to be stopped due to the safety risks that are posed to motorists.

The idea behind smart motorways is to introduce a better traffic management system in areas where congestion builds up the most, in order to reduce it.

However, one of the ways to combat this is by removing the hard shoulder and allowing its use as an active lane.

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This means that there is nowhere to go for cars that have broken down or are in need of assistance such as in a medical emergency, and also means that it can be more difficult for emergency vehicles to get to their destination more quickly.

Highway England maintains that the safety of these motorways is as high as they possibly can be, but there have already been several cases of fatal incidents occurring due to the lack of hard shoulder.

Smart motorway fatalities

In 2019, there were 14 deaths on smart motorways, with 11 in the previous year and five in 2017. 

Most of these fatalities have occurred on a stretch of smart motorway on the M1 near Sheffield; the most recent occurring in February of this year.

Dr. Alan Billings, the Police and Crime Commissioner of South Yorkshire Police said:

"I do not believe there is anyone who uses this stretch of the motorway, as I do, who does not feel anxious when driving along it.

"I call upon the minister and Highways England to abandon this type of smart motorway before we have more serious injuries or fatalities."

Highways England has said they are determined to make smart motorways as safe as they can with some new proposals.

Why are smart motorways dangerous?

If a car breaks down on a motorway, rather than having the ability to pull over to the left and reside on the hard shoulder, they now must remain stationary in the lane they encountered the problem.

It means that they have to remain in their vehicle while awaiting assistance from their breakdown service while cars continue to race past them at 70mph.

In all weather conditions, but especially when visibility is reduced, it could mean an oncoming vehicle does not see the broken down car until it's too late and plows right through the back of them.

New safety measures being introduced

Highways England is abolishing the 'dynamic hard shoulder' motorway configuration which is when the hard shoulder is an active lane for the vast majority of the time.

They plan on increasing the use of camera technology so they can continuously monitor the roads and quickly identify broken-down vehicles.

More use of cameras will be able to track motorists driving in any lane with a red X above it. This sign indicates that the lane is closed and anybody driving in it would be committing an illegal and dangerous offence.

They also want to reduce the distance between emergency refuges on smart motorways where all lanes are operational to a maximum of one mile, with the ideal length being three-quarters of a mile.

Campaigners have called for the motorways to be abolished and it's led to the government getting involved to commit to increased levels of communications with drivers to better explain how the motorways work.

Will the safety measures be enough?

Head of Roads Policy at the RAC, Nicholas Lyes, said he was not sure whether the new safety measures being introduced would be significant enough to reduce the number of fatalities.

“Two-thirds of drivers tell us that they believe permanently removing the hard shoulder compromises safety in the event of a breakdown. 

“While it is welcome that the government has listened to their concerns and undertaken this review, it remains to be seen whether these measures go far enough to protect drivers who are unfortunate enough to break down in live lanes.” 

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Smart motorways summary

New smart motorway building schemes will cost the taxpayer £1.2billion and the increased number of fatalities year-on-year has failed to deter the continuation of their inception.

Time will only tell if they actually reduce congestion and make nationwide travel smoother and quicker, but at what cost?

From the evidence we have seen so far, smart motorways are 'inherently dangerous and should be abandoned', and the sooner the government weighs in to support that claim, the sooner we can all feel safer when driving on the motorway.

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