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.
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.
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.
A couple if thoughts on the above – smart motorways are able to lower the traffic speed to suit the conditions. How about increasing the speed limit to say 80mph when there is minimal traffic i.e. 1:00 to 4:00am? Potentially charging motorists per mile – would motorists get a refund during a motorway night closure/lane closures for road repairs? recent examples, M23 closed & M25 down to one lane!
Having driven last week in smart motorway it is definitely less congested than it used to be when there were three lanes and a hard shoulder. The biggest danger and problem on our motorway system is speeding cars and lorries driving far too close to the vehicle in front of them . We need cameras in bridges which record the distance between vehicles so that this problem can be dealt with. In Germany fines are automatically issued to lorry drivers who drive too close the one in front. Let’s have a similar system here
The “smart” motorway eh? The one that causes all the jams between junctions 11 to 5 on the m6 every single day by putting 40mph up on empty roads just because its 6.30? Traffic lights on slip roads cause traffic not to be up to speed to join an hypresto, instant jam. I think this mismanaged motorway is done to make people sick of driving so may go bus or train instead.
I was driving on asmart motorway earlier this week. The “smart”lane was closed due to an obstruction, however there were still cars being driven down that lane as obviously it was deemed to be quicker! It scares me that there are such fools on the road
is it just me but as soon as I see or hear the word smart or hub it puts my teeth on edge. I have to question is something that brilliant to call it smart or what is wrong with the other words we once used. I do not use the motorways that much and ideally prefer not to when I can enjoy a slower speed and see countryside around me rather then speeding along worrying some idiot is not pulling out at last minute as not used their mirrors etc or locked into high banks with fumes of traffic coming in the car; (A34 north of Winchester can be bad)
The A34 north of Winchester must be in the running for the most dangerous road in the UK!
I just do not believe that doing away with hard shoulders can ever be a good idea. They are places of relative safety for dealing with the inevitable breakdowns which always occur. We pretend this is not about avoiding the cost of widening motorways and of course it is. All obscured behind changes in lane rules, variable speed limits and the rest, and unsubstantiated claims of greater safety; even the word “smart” is chosen to give a subliminal feeling of” it must be the right thing to do then”. It isn’t.
Yes no doubt in time smart motorways will bring various charges which will slip unnoticed in to the cost of driving.
We get the Governments we deserve I guess.
I think there is a government ‘brain-washing’ going on, mmmm ! They are trying to tell us “even when travelling at 50mph for a section of your journey, in some cases, MANY sections” your total time to reach your destination hasn’t altered by very much ?? This being said we do NEED the hard shoulder if for nothing else but to allow emergency vehicles to reach an accident quickly ?!!
What, at the end of the day do we ALL want – SAFER travelling conditions ? Yes ?
Also it would certainly be safer and LESS road rage if all drivers knew ‘LANE control’ – Why they are there?
What they are for ?? and why in some instances this changes ??
What a bollocks !!! Poor driver !!! They dont know how to used motorways at all !!! Traffic ,traffic on all lines . Idiots driving and blocking lines without reason . British motorways are so danger and not safe !!!! Please do not writing anything about motorways in Britain is safer on the world because NOT!!!!!
Most people should drive a restricted vehicle. They cannot drive with enough skill or consideration for other road users to be trusted with a ‘dumb’ car. Dumb car, dumb driver equals accidents. I welcome the day they actively restrict cars and enforce anti collision tech. in all vehicles. I’m happy to go quick on a track day if I want my speed fix. I will be sharing that track with other competent drivers so that’s fine.
Driving on public highways is becoming increasingly hazardous due to falling standards. I have been driving for 30 plus years so I have had enough time to see it’s downward trend.
People have more power at their disposal these days, but less skill, awareness and control. It’s worrying.
Don’t forget less concentration too, attention spans are decreasing because of all the gismos in our lives
Are you sure? Maybe because there’s more people driving and so the roads are more congested and so you see more of the less skilled drivers in your vicinity; and also because it’s more congested the less skilled drivers have less space around them and so “dangerous “ driving literally is going to have more impact on other road users. (I’ve been driving 60 years.)
With all this talk about how safe these so called smart motorways going around by people who have have had a hand in bringing them about.
Let’s look at how safe they are?
1/ we must not breakdown unless we are within a safe place to do so! Ie where there is a safety layby at every mile and a half! Ha, yes right I’m sure that will work out fine, most breakdowns require you to stop asap at loss of power, puncture etc
Then theres the fact these so called sefety laybys are very small and have no acceleration lane so as to safely re merge with motorway speeding traffic!
2/ we must take the word of the designers they are safe and it’s the fault of bad drivers that are the cause of the recent deaths!
I’m sure we will all be reassured by the above statements when we experience the dreaded unexpected loss of power caused by engine failure or have a puncture! How could our vehicle do this to us? We’re nowhere near the safety layby yet! And there’s a dirty great lorry immediately behind me or some other idiot driving too close! Oh I forgot, I’ll be fine won’t I because someone in a nice safe monitor room will see my plight and switch on a lane closure sign on and save me! BUT WHAT ABOUT MY IMMEDIATE DANGER BEHIND ME THE DIRTY GREAT LORRY?
NO SORRY I’M CONVINCED THESE ROADS ARE A DANGER!
I BET THE PEOPLE WHO ARGUE THEY ARE SAFE WOULDN’T GO IN A CAR ONTO A SO CALLED SMART MOTORWAY THAT I COULD DISABLE REMOTELY AND UNEXPECTEDLY TO THEM, AND OF COURSE I’D DISABLE IT FAR AWAY FROM A LAYBY JUST WHEN A LORRY OR OTHER VEHICLE WAS TRAVELLING CLOSE TO THEM! WE WOULD NEED IT TO BE REALISTIC.
I’m not keen on smart motorways at all – don’t know anyone who is, but I agree with those who say driving standards are abysmal. This week I’ve driven down the M1 and back and witnessed at first hand the lunatic antics that would be more at home in a dodgems fairground. Going down I had the girl in the red Fiesta who suddenly veered in to my lane right in front of my bonnet. She was busily tapping away at a satnav on her windscreen. Coming back this afternoon I had the lorry driver who decided to move his lorry in to my lane as I was alongside the length of his truck. Both had the potential to kill.
What can be done? Well I think compulsory re-testing of all drivers every 5 years. Or everyone should have to complete an IAM Roadsmart course at some point. It’s not fair that good drivers should have to share the roads with people whose attention is anywhere but on their driving.
Re testing is not practical and disrupting not to mention costly for good drivers as well as the bad,
Why should good drivers have to keep forking out money and keep having to submit to re testing with all the disruption it would cause to their lives? WHEN THEY’VE DONE NOTHING WRONG!
I say no, what’s needed is more police & for them and the court’s to do their job’s properly and hand out corrective justice! If someone is caught doing something dangerous and’ or stupid, they are the ones that should have to immediately have removal of their licence & submit to re testing, let those that make the roads a more dangerous place be removed like it should be! That way we’ll all be a lot safer.
Truly spoken Alan, I am one who used to enjoy my driving on the motorways and other minor roads but not anymore, I am honestly petrified of driving because of the ‘could not be bothered attitude’ and SOME irresponsible and inexperienced drivers. We used to have the best UK lorry and car drivers on our roads but NO MORE. They were well mannered , careful and thoughtful drivers. I feel some of the bad examples have been set by some reckless European drivers. I do not know how they drive back home in their countries but it is NOT acceptable here. This is a fact. HOW MANY NUMBER RECOGNITION CAMERAS ARE THERE ON OUR ROADS because they do not seem to heed to our speed limit signs and so our drivers things think and do exactly the same……what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. How many drivers know or keep to the speed in Urban areas??? IF EVERYONE ONE OF US ABIDES BY THE LAW (which are there for our safe keeping) then we will not have any law breakers will we??? Thank you.🙏🏼
No point whatsoever in testing, let alone re-testing.
All a test proves is that you drove satisfactorily while the examiner was in the car .He has no control, nor even knowledge of what you get up to 2 minutes after he gets out of the car.
Remember a major cause of accidents is still drink driving. Only a complete idiot would turn up drunk for a driving test!
The whole “cost saving while improving” argument is fundamentally flawed. IT would make sense if there would be no road tax in UK and it would be public which has to cover for motorists. In such case it could be argued that “although road safety and ensuring traffic flow” are important, the cost aspect should as well be considered in public interest.
However, that is not the case at all – British motorists are taxed more than £37 billions every-year purely for road usage and only £4 billion are spent on maintenance and “improvements”. Yes it is not called “road tax”, but that is effectively what it is – one only pays fuel duties when refuelling and only if they use public roads, same applies to VED – to drive on public road you need it. The name does not matter, what matters is the purpose and VED + DUTY is in effect “road tax”.
This means the roads are paid for by the drivers – not only drivers fully covers full cost of road, drivers covers this costs 10 times over… and still only gets some crumbs. Instead of proper road improvement every busier junction is replaced with roundabout (because is cheaper than multi-level crossing) and under-capacity motorways are extended by using hard-shoulders and lay bays which were there for safety. Clearly motorists not only pays for the roads, but actually already funds the public! Clearly this is just another money grab…. because government can!
Analogy would be – you hire a company to fit your kitchen, they charge you £10000, do shoddy work and when you find out they have fitted cheap-ass equipment for £2000 instead of £10000, they argument is – “we did it because it was more cost efficient?!” – “f u … that is my money and I paid for it, so cost efficiency is not your problem!!!!”
Jim O’Sullivan has proved many many times that he has the brains of a rocking horse. As Smart Motorways are basically ‘his baby’, he’s not going to have anything but praise for them. As a driver with over 50 years experience, driving cars, vans, and 44 ton HGV’s all over the U.K. and Europe, I can categorically assure O’Sullivavan that SM’s are highly dangerous.
Drivers don’t help, typically, the U.K. has some dreadful drivers, many who never look beyond their own front bonnet.
I totally agree with you, as mr o’sullivan seems only concerned with how much money can be saved, so that his salary can be further enhanced with a good bonus payment, as it is well known “when costs come in the room, safety goes out the window” and his pocket is more important than people’s lives.
Smart motorways are dangerous, safety areas are to far apart if you break down . Then you have lorries hogging 3 lanes leaving just the outer lane for over taking . Then you have the morons who sit in the 3rd lane at 55mph when the inner lanes are more appropriate for there speed .
I often drive the m1 section between Leeds and Wakefield and regularly see middle lane hogs, not keeping to the left lane when it’s empty. Yesterday I saw a van driving down the 3rd lane of 4 lanes, on his phone driving and the 2 left lanes clear. Also people driving too close together, so much for the 2 second gap rule! Also drivers taking an exit too late and cutting across 2 lanes at the last minute, narrowly missing other vehicles. Why don’t these people get caught and fined for dangerous driving??
Smart motorways are an expensive way to manage traffic on motorways. Instead of spending our VED on making “dumb” motorways smart, the government should fund police patrols, to catch the “middle-lane hoggers” on them. I can tell you that, to/from J8 (Baillieston interchange) along the M8 is notorious for this bad practise. Even in off-peak, I could count at least 20 cars in the middle Lane between J8 and J7 (Eurocentral) when there are no vehicles in lane 1, or there is more than 10 cars’ distance to the vehicle in front. It is these selfish clowns that are the cause of motorway accidents, as they force cars of varying speeds to try to pass them on the driver’s side. It is unsafe to “undertake” these morons.
The standard of driving today has dropped and is getting worse day by day .Time something was done to remove many “drivers ” from the roads for ever and test all breaking the law or involved in an accident before letting them drive again
The “smart” stretch of the M1 motorway near us manifests itself as either three lanes or four according to the conditions, or whatever criterion is used to decide. Where four lanes becomes three, and the fourth reverts to hard shoulder, motorists must quickly squeeze into the three legal lanes to avoid a £100 fine. This may not be as easy as it seems in heavy, fast moving traffic. Could this be the cause of accidents? I would not consider this dumb driving.
The hard shoulder is also an emergency escape route. Smart motorways take this escape route away.
If the government is considering/going to increase the number of laybys/refuge areas, why not go the hole hog and make an emergency lane as standard motor-ways. Part of the problem solved. The other part of the problem, Dumb/inconsiderate/moronic driver will forever remain the scourge of driving on any road.
Emergency lane = hard shoulder. So you are widening the motorway anyway.
The article says “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.” but importantly fails to mention how many miles of smart motorway there are compared to standard… The numbers of cars that are on them is also relevant – the most useful comparison statistic is a per mile one though a one that also accounts for volume of traffic would be ideal.
The other thing is the warning signs we all come across saying things like ‘obstruction on road’ or ‘animals’ etc are invariably no longer there by the time you get to the area. They just don’t update the signs quickly enough & also put them on for many many miles too many meaning drivers have given up hope of them ever being correct now.
If you want to see how “safe” smart motorways are then drive down the M42. I do twice a month, the motorway is a joke. There’s always accidents, constant speed limits to 60mph and 40mph for no good reason, even at 3am when the motorway is dead there’ll be a 60, 50 or 40mph speed limit for no reason. The speed limits cause cars to bunch up and then it causes chaos going on to the A42. The money that goes towards converting motorways to smart motorways should be spent on catching and punishing lane hoggers and dangerous drivers and getting them off the roads
Two issues; reckless driving and safe breakdown refuge.
I think recklessness (aside inevitable idiots) must be partly driven by frustration, many smart motorway journeys I get on culminate in traffic jams. Display 60 and drivers brake to 50, show 50 get 40, etc. 30 and standstill. I see traffic like water – hold it up and will back up. Distraction is a problem, from in-car entertainment systems to mobiles and outside overloading of signage, gantry instructions, warnings and SatNavs telling you where to go. My concern is that drivers are loosing charge of their overview senses, as they don’t have to – introducing the dumb driver!
This plus lack of hard shoulder availability is a disaster. My solution would be to tear the smart out of motorway, keep hard shoulder (you have to, no excuse) widen to create more capacity over time and make the drivers more accountable of their actions and driving intelligence. You can’t let dumb promote dumber, and it’s not like there will be any less drivers (or/if automated vehicles) in 2030.
As for the pigeon driving this bus, I quote: Jim O’Sullivan grew up in a family of contractors. “So no one has to tell me that contractors need to be able to make a reasonable profit,”. http://www.infrastructure-intelligence.com/article/aug-2015/interview-highways-england-chief-executive-jim-o%E2%80%99sullivan “The public feel very uncomfortable on smart motorways, which we have to accept. But I think we will reach a point where people will be uncomfortable with the idea that they are not on a CCTV camera, where there is not a stopped-vehicle detection system, where they have to stop on a hard shoulder instead of a refuge area.” https://www.highwaysmagazine.co.uk/Exclusive-Jim-OSullivan-says-the-conventional-motorway-is-over-/4812
Oh yeah and who’s going to install, run, manage and power all this tech, just so I can drive from A to B – utter unaccountable blind madness, but tax revenues will be up so that’s OK. Dumb gets us all to pay for being stupid, and that is ridiculous.
So a permanent hard shoulder isn’t as safe as tiny refuges over a mile apart and the all too obvious risk of breaking down in a running lane full of 40+ tone articulated lorries, eh?
If you say so Highways England…
“but as autonomous vehicles become common place” – IF they ever become commonplace but suffer the inevitable sudden failure that all technology- managed devices suffer, from phones that freeze to car ECUs that simply stop working, they’d better hope there’s a working autonomous car behind them and not a lorry driver scrolling through his music selection or watching videos.,
9 deaths on a smart motorway network of 488 miles ? That leaves 68 deaths out of the total killed on the larger scale of 2 173 miles of standard motorways.
The congestion occurs when vehicles try to leave or join a motorway not on a motorway its self .Widen motorways where vehicles are joining or leaving and traffic would move faster which is what these ignorant planners are trying to do .Speed means everything today to many
motoring isnt a leaisure pasttime anymore because the rip off government have made it too expensive. driving isnt for enjoyment, its essentials only now. if leaisure use was affordable, we would, im sure, drive more! i certainly would.