In an interview last week with the BBC, Matt Pates, East Midlands regional traffic operations manager for Highways England, claimed that smart motorways were safe, if not safer without the hard shoulder. His comment was met with a howl of derision from various motoring groups.

Mr Pates said the need for hard shoulders had become redundant because modern cars are now fitted with technology that warns the driver when they’re about to break down, giving them plenty of time to act.

He also argued that vehicles are more reliable today than ever before and the chances of suffering a reliability issue are at an all-time low.

Motoring organizations such as the AA, MPs and the Police have all raised concerns over the increase in collisions on smart motorway sections with no hard shoulder, with an all-party parliamentary group asking for them to be halted until safety concerns are addressed.

Collisions in Red X lanes

Two people were killed in the same stretch of an ALR (All Lanes Running) on the M1 in Derbyshire. An 83-year-old man Derek Jacobs was killed when his van came to a halt, potentially due to a mechanical failure according to police, on a stretch of motorway that had no hard shoulder, just emergency refuge areas which are spaced just over a mile apart.

 Breakdown patrol workers have shown how dangerous it can be, especially if the smart motorway is an ALR and the dangers of ignoring the Red X[1] above the lane as it risks lives every time.  And despite tough new penalties to drivers for driving in a lane marked red, collisions are still happening.

Police have also raised issues saying they struggle to get to the issue faster as there is no hard shoulder for them to cut through now, and the same applies for any emergency services.

Emergency services now must weave through the traffic to get to the crash which is often congested quite a long way back, increasing the amount of time it takes to reach the accident and save lives.

How do smart motorways work?

The first ever smart motorway was on the M25 in 1996 according to Highways England. Since then over four hundred miles[1] have been converted across the country. In 2018 the Chancellor approved the installation of smart motorways all over the UK at a cost of £23 Billion.

Smart motorways use Active Traffic Management (ATM) to monitor roadways and make decisions on how to best control traffic. This is done by one of two methods. The first is a copper coil placed underneath the roads and when a car, which is metal, passes over it registers an electric current which then detects how fast the car is going and also how many cars are passing over. The second is a roadside “side-fire radar” which is the preferred method as it both easier to maintain and reduces the risk of potholes. This shoots a beam from the side of the road which then picks up the speed and distance between cars.

This data from either the coils or the beams are then sent to a central computer which uses a lengthy algorithm to determine whether it needs to slow the traffic down if it thinks the road is getting too busy to prevent congestion. It may seem strange slowing down when there seems to be no apparent reason, but this is all to prevent potential congestion rather than slowing down for congestion.

The computer can only change speed automatically everything else is done by human interaction. Lanes closing are controlled by the operations centre, which relies on members of the public, police, CCTV information and more. They will close lanes, show other messages and show lane merge messages.

There are three kinds of smart motorways; controlled, where people cannot drive on the hard shoulder, dynamic hard shoulder, where the hard shoulder can be converted into an extra lane using the overhead gantries and then an ALR (All Lanes Running) where there is a refuge area every 1.55 miles. 

Using a smart motorway safely

This isn’t just about your safety, this about the safety of others. For example, driving in a lane with a Red X above could end up with you crashing into the back of a police car or ambulance. Not only that but you’ll get a £100 fine and three points on your license.

Make sure you are aware of the gantries above, as these will tell you what to do and follow the instructions as best as possible by slowing down carefully and speeding back up carefully.

If you do breakdown or must seek refuge at the side of the road either pull over into the hard shoulder or the next refuge area. If this is not possible then use the verge. If you breakdown in a lane on a smart motorway and are not able to reach a refuge area call 999 immediatly.

Once you have stopped in an emergency refuge area call Highways England, either through an emergency roadside phone or on 0300 123 5000 from a mobile. They will then make the motorway safe for you and give advice on what to do next. In the event of a breakdown, phone your breakdown provider and then let them know where you are plus any more information you have.

Do you think smart motorways are safe? Would you feel comfortable in a refuge area? Let us know in the comments below

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