Some drivers love them while others hate them, but we concur with the South East Local Enterprise Partnership’s robust description of motorways as “the backbone of the country and key to driving a successful economy” and agree that a motorway utopia would entail reliability, reach and safety.

Smart motorways have increasingly become one of the strategies heralded and focussed on by the government and other organisations as a primary means of optimising and modernising travel in the UK alongside HS2 and HS3 – the latter a rail link we feel would have many more tangible benefits than the former, which could be argued as a questionable investment.

A bit of history

The UK’s first smart motorway, back then referred to as ‘controlled’ or ‘managed’, was introduced on a stretch of the busy M42 in the Midlands in 2006, and since then upgrade projects have spread nationwide, with Vehicle Consulting’s team now intimately familiar with sections of the nearby M60, M6 and M62 that were worked on amidst 50mph roadworks for what felt like an eternity.

As a recap, ‘smart motorways’ incorporate active traffic management (ATM) involving sensors, fibre communication networks, cameras, gantry signs and other technology including drones in a certain instances, along with emergency refuge areas (ERA), all with the aim of keeping traffic flowing as smoothly as possible.

There are technically four primary types of smart motorway, but older ‘through-junction running’ and basic ‘controlled’ motorways where the traditional hard shoulder at all times remains, are phasing out, leaving ‘dynamic hard shoulder’ and ‘all-lane running’ varieties as the most prevalent. Anyone who has found themselves on a smart motorway unexpectedly or for the first time will have since become familiar with the red ‘X’ signs, yellow emergency refuge areas spread 0.8-1.5 miles apart and the various ANPR and CCTV cameras and gantries that also characterise them.

Are smart motorways proving effective?

They were originally devised as a way of preparing for and accommodating a forecast 60{ec595d639c7af84cbc7fc0acb6374d86a1a45dcaaa2dd2746482d63031334ff0} rise in UK traffic volumes by 2040 without roads having to be physically widened, and reports published during half a dozen years or so of their birth point to this new type of motorway initially yielding traffic capacity increases of around 9{ec595d639c7af84cbc7fc0acb6374d86a1a45dcaaa2dd2746482d63031334ff0}, journey variability reductions of over 30{ec595d639c7af84cbc7fc0acb6374d86a1a45dcaaa2dd2746482d63031334ff0} and, arguably most importantly, a halving of road casualties and a small but welcome drop in CO2 emissions.

Highways England says that fewer vehicles are running out of fuel since the advent of smart motorways because of the bolstered signage regarding filling stations, which is a positive inroad into an avoidable situation that has historically contributed to between 5 and 10{ec595d639c7af84cbc7fc0acb6374d86a1a45dcaaa2dd2746482d63031334ff0} of breakdowns.

This year has seen a war of words and beliefs emerge over smart motorways, though, with Highways England unsurprisingly on the one hand stating that they’re as safe as conventional M-roads, while commentators such as The Spectator’s James Delingpole have declared that “smart motorways are very stupid”. Matt Pates from Highways England in the East Midlands recently told the media that smart motorways are “as safe, if not safer” without hard shoulders, but Mervyn King the AA’s president still questions smart motorways’ safety, commenting that the “the gap between emergency refuge areas has been a major concern”.

Computers minutely controlling the UK’s motorways and eventually other roads may seem a logical step to some, but technology of any kind and supposed robustness can and sometimes does fail, an example in the case of smart motorways being when a glitch created commuter traffic tailbacks of several miles after computers left all three lanes of the M1 closed despite roadworks having been completed by 5am.

The technology currently behind smart motorways

Copper looms embedded in the surface of a smart motorway create an electrical current and send a signal when vehicles drive over them, but they’re susceptible to potholes which are undisputedly ubiquitous, so side-fire radars projecting beams at vehicles to the same effect are now increasingly being deployed instead.

Fascinatingly, it is the data from fibre cables, cameras, copper wiring and laser-beams that influences the variable speed limits displayed on gantry signs of smart motorways, which are controlled automatically. Computers aren’t able to react to crashes and implement lane closures, though, so these decisions are still made by humans in control rooms, Pates explained to the BBC. 

Safety concerns vs. economic benefits

Verschlimmbesserung is a fabulous German word that essentially refers to an attempted improvement that actually makes things worse and is cited by James Delingpole in his piece as a word that encapsulates smart motorways. We can appreciate why he found his car suddenly losing power in a live lane with no ERA nearby a terrifying experience, amplified by having stopped in a blind spot unseen by cameras, and with no emergency or breakdown assistance arriving for an hour, which to us sounds unacceptable and was reportedly due to a lack of communication.

The arguments that the police, road safety and other bodies find smart motorways hazardous, recovery vehicles and emergency services aren’t able to reach stranded parties as easily in the absence of a hard shoulder and that most drivers find them confusing are all understandable, but we feel it’s unfair to label smart motorways a failure. As Oliver Gill rightly wrote in The Telegraph, smart motorways “are here to stay”.

Physically widening most motorways would undeniably take years in many cases, there simply isn’t the land, space and topography available in certain areas, and while it’s hardly scientific, our own experience of smart motorways has largely been positive. One of the Vehicle Consulting team regularly drives between Stockport and Crewe and the M6 smart motorway upgrade certainly seems to have boosted traffic flow, made journey times less variable and, we say with trepidation, reduced delays caused by accidents. It’s around slip-road roundabouts and traffic lights such as at Mere and Bowdon where delays still occur, but this isn’t down to the smart motorways they are joined to.

M6 upgrades in Staffordshire and Birmingham will reportedly reap tenfold benefits, the £80m lost in journey times while work continues anticipated to translate into an eventual £802m economic boost, albeit years in the future.

Police trucks and motorways made from recycled tyres

We certainly welcome other parallel steps being taken in relation to motorways, from unmarked white Mercedes Actros HGV ‘supercabs’ being operated by Highways England and the police in a bid to catch dangerous drivers and recording nearly 200 offences in just one week, to Tarmac using millions of recycled tyres in a granulated rubber asphalt trial on the M1, which will play a part in reducing the half a million tyres that annually leave the UK for landfill.

We’re equally pleased to learn of endeavours being made to keep roadside breakdown and recovery personnel safer on smart motorways after six or more have been killed each year so far. Highways England has launched a training course that will be delivered by the Network Training Partnership, and the key safety principles that will be promoted include the former having the authority to close lanes, set speed limits and allocate traffic and/or other police officers to support rescue operatives, who will no longer be expected to attend breakdowns or collisions in live lanes.

Smart motorways and organisations’ duty of care

With not far under one million company cars on UK roads according to recent BIK figures, not to mention the 3.9 million vans plus swathes of ‘grey fleet’ cash allowance opt-out drivers out there, it’s vital that awareness over smart motorways is taken ever more seriously by businesses and other organisations as part of their duty of care. After all, four deaths in ten months on smart stretches of the M1 motorway specifically involving oncoming traffic colliding with stricken vehicles are four fatalities too many.

Highways England is permitted up to three minutes’ leeway between observing that a vehicle has stopped in a live lane and displaying a red ‘X’ symbol to denote that the lane has been closed, resulting in the AA and many drivers conjuring images of a ‘sitting duck’. At the same time, a Kwik Fit study this month has found that 56{ec595d639c7af84cbc7fc0acb6374d86a1a45dcaaa2dd2746482d63031334ff0} of the 2,003 motorists they surveyed avoid using the hard shoulder or ‘lane one’ of smart motorways because of uncertainty over when it is and isn’t permitted, and 15{ec595d639c7af84cbc7fc0acb6374d86a1a45dcaaa2dd2746482d63031334ff0} weren’t aware that a blank black sign above the inside lane means that it can’t be driven in – an aspect that we agree could be clearer. It could also be argued that having to constantly be aware of gantry speed limits can prove distracting, especially amidst heavy traffic volumes, making often rued average limits actually seem fairer.

Drivers breaking the speed limit on motorways is more likely in the early hours of the morning around 4am, DfT data has recently revealed, with weekends in particular correlating with peaks in speeding offences. It would be even more insightful if these findings were broken down into conventional and smart motorways, where speed limits are widely believed to be even more prodigiously enforced by cameras. 

Company car handbooks and fleet management policies

Fleet drivers would benefit from smart motorway advice being incorporated in company car or general HR personnel handbooks, especially now that cameras are being actively used to prosecute vehicles with three licence penalty points and a £100 fine for intentionally or even accidentally ignoring red ‘X’ warning signs.

Driver First Assist, a non-profit organisation that does the excellent work of training drivers to provide life-saving first aid and manage the scene at road accidents before emergency services arrive, has called on corporate vehicle safety to receive a renewed focus in today’s changing world of mobility, car clubs, ride-sharing and grey fleet popularity.

We support Martyn Nash’s assertions that employers mustn’t absolve themselves from their health and safety responsibilities in relation to use of grey fleet vehicles, which is still deemed an at-work activity under their remit, and that more needs to be done to ensure that such personnel keep their vehicles in a roadworthy condition, from tyres and brakes to lights and other servicing and maintenance items. The ACFO and Lex Autolease have also urged organisations to strengthen their grey fleet policies and proactive approaches, which is something Vehicle Consulting regularly assists our fleet clients with.

Vehicle-to-everything communication

The future of smart motorways is fascinating, with Highways England trialling vehicle-to-everything (V2X) connectivity on the M2 in Kent and continuously developing its software for handling large streams of data, as cars gradually become connected and able to not only communication with each other in swarms but also with infrastructure and architecture such as cameras, sensors, signs, roads, and the computer systems they feed into.

This forthcoming two-way flow of information between vehicles’ sat nav infotainment systems will be revolutionised with the arrival of 5G and will bring about live, dynamic traffic management and routing, ultimately helping the UK’s roads flow even more efficiently, which will play a part in strengthening the economy in an unknown post-Brexit climate. Audi, Ford, Volkswagen and other OEMs are working on V2X technology alongside major technology pioneers like Qualcomm, with the blue oval’s models set to see it deployed from 2020, but in the States first of all.

In the meantime, road safety organisations, fleet management and leasing brokers and employers themselves can all play a role in making the UK’s smart motorways as safe as possible as they inevitably spread in all directions.