Britain’s roads are among the safest in the world, and crashes on smart motorways are the fault of the person behind the wheel, according to Jim O’Sullivan, chief exec of Highways England.

Just a few weeks ago, we came to the same conclusion; a common theme from your comments was that ‘Smart Motorway = Dumb Driver’, but is it as simple as that? Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps has requested a full investigation into the ‘true safety record’ of smart motorways, with the cynical viewpoint of no doubt finding in favour of them.

Nearly 500 miles

As of April this year, there were 488 miles of smart roadways, with a plan of extending that figure to around 800 miles by 2025. Highways England are keen to point out that there were 77 deaths on traditional motorways in 2018, with just nine on smart roads. The inference being that smart roads really aren’t that dangerous.

With this in mind, Mr O’Sullivan has rejected the calls to put a hold on the extension plans, and to add more emergency lay-bys as he feels that would do very little to improve safety on the smart roadways. Edmund King, president of the AA has a different point of view: “It’s ludicrous to suggest that having more lay-bys won’t improve safety … if drivers have more places to pull off the motorway, that’s going to make the whole thing a lot safer.”

Good reason to stop

King’s assessment is somewhat backed up by O’Sullivan’s own admission that many of the accidents are  caused as a result of motorists stopping inappropriately, such as to check directions or swap phone numbers after a minor bump; surely if there were more refuge areas, drivers wouldn’t take the risk of stopping in a live lane?

Bringing out the argument of a money grab or stealth tax is quite easy, perhaps expected, but the reality is that these motorways are much more cost-efficient to build, and of course allow for an easier monitoring system, which in turn boils down to revenue, than traditional motorways, and even the most pro supporter needs to acknowledge that argument.

Best estimates put traditional motorway building or widening at the cost of around £30m per mile, while a Parliamentary report states that the M42 smart scheme was implemented at a cost of just £9m per mile, and in the days where budget is at least as important as ‘safety’, you can clearly see why it’s the favoured method of adding capacity.

Added to that is the £41m revenue generated from fining drivers for lane infringements or speeding, and smart motorways seem like manna from heaven for the government.

Less driving

As a nation, we’re driving less miles than we’ve ever done; the average car mileage is 17% less than it was in 2002, and it’s thought that a large part of this is due to the nature of driving on our roads – motoring is no longer an enjoyable pastime, it’s not a leisure activity as it once was, and we rarely choose to just ‘head out for a drive’ on a sunny Sunday.

Perhaps it’s the overcrowding on the roads, the lack of courtesy and respect, poor lane discipline or the constant fear of being targeted through the use of non-discretionary cameras, but driving in the UK is on a downward spiral, and that could be the saving grace of the smart motorway.

If, as a nation, we’re turning to our cars for purely perfunctory reasons, only using them as needed rather than as wanted, volume of traffic will be lessened, and there may not be the need to squeeze every last bit of road space from our network.

Of course it could be argued that while we may be driving less, the volume of traffic could still increase thanks to the population increasing, but as autonomous vehicles become common place, their ability to manage traffic interaction and avoid collisions could be key to removing the dangerous element of smart motorways – the human.

Smart charging

It could also be argued that smart motorways are just another minor step towards charging motorists per mile; much of the infrastructure needed is already in place, and with a few tweaks to the software, instead of capturing registrations for rule breaking, it would be just as easy to issue a bill for using the motorway.

Technology has an ever-increasing presence on our roads – noise cameras, ‘safety’ cameras, traffic monitoring, speed limiting … surely we’re getting closer to the day where all vehicles are the same, never travelling above the speed limit, with whisper quiet running? Homogeneous motoring is upon us.

Should smart roads dictate our lives? Will there come a day (in the not too distant future) where we’ll all be driving the same ‘vehicle’? Let us know in the comments.

Photo © Copyright Robin Webster and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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