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Smart Motorways – “not so smart” – says Transport Secretary Grant Shapps

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has told the Parliamentary Transport Committee that radar technology capable of detecting a broken down car in just 20 seconds wil be installed on all smart motorways that do not have a hard shoulder, by next year.


To improve safety,  more regular lay-bys would also be installed, and drivers who ignored lane closure signs would be fined.


At the committee hearing on February 3rd 2020,  the transport secretary said that smart motorways were “a misnomer”  and he promised to speed up the installation of vital new safety equipment.


Grant Shapps said that the system, in which the hard shoulder is turned into a traffic lane, had been “anything but” smart in the past because of a shortage of emergency lay-bys and the failure to quickly detect broken-down vehicles.


He told MPs that mistakes were made over the initial expansion of motorways without a hard shoulder, acknowledging that he “wouldn’t have gone about it like this”.


The system was due to be installed on 350 miles of motorway by 2025 before a commitment was made last year for a new deadline of March 2023.


Yesterday Mr Shapps said that he had met Highways England and would be “bringing [the deadline] forward again”, with all stretches of smart motorway to be fitted out next year.


Smart motorways involve stripping out the hard shoulder to create an extra lane, increasing capacity on the motorway. In most areas, they have emergency refuge areas up to 1.5 miles apart and red X signs are deployed on overhead gantries to close lanes.


However, huge concerns have been raised over the safety of drivers who break down without making it to the safety of a lay-by.


Last month David Urpeth, the Sheffield coroner, said that the lack of a hard shoulder on the M1 in South Yorkshire contributed to the deaths of two motorists who were hit by a lorry in 2019 – see our blog post “ Smart motorways trade driver safety for lower costs”.


The “managed motorways” system was introduced by the labour government in 2006.  While the original intention was to place refuge lay-bys ever half mile,  the coalition government chose to increase the 0.5-mile distance between lay-bys to 1.5 miles to save money.  A decision that may well have cost several lives.


Mr Shapps said: “I wouldn’t have gone about it like this, and I don’t approve of the fact that the emergency areas were being spaced way too far apart. I’ve inherited all that. I’ve said they have to be ideally three quarters of a mile [and] no more than a mile.


“Why these things were ever called smart motorways when they seemed to be anything but, I think was a misnomer.”


However, he ruled out any possibility of reinstating the hard shoulder, saying that it would lead to more congestion through the closure of the existing fourth lane or involve concreting over huge swathes of greenbelt by the side of the road to widen existing motorways.


While the improvement in detection equipment and more refuge areas is to be welcomed, a vehicle travelling at 70 m.p.h. will cover 684 yards in the 20 seconds it will take the radar to detect a stationary vehicle and activate the lane closure signs.  If the driver has just passed a sign, and assuming the driver is alert, and takes a second to recognise the danger, then another half second to get their foot on the brake, the vehicle will have travelled another 50 yards before the brakes go on and just over 100 yards to bring it to a halt, on a dry road.  That potentially could be a total distance travelled of almost half a mile.


It’s hard to get past the conclusion that if a vehicle suddenly stops in traffic moving at 70 m.p.h. the chances of a collision are odds on.  Hard shoulders were built into motorway designs for a reason.  There is a massive need for greater education as to what to do when breaking down on a smart motorway.  The Highways England website gives further information on how to drive on a smart motorway and a video of what to do in an emergency  if you break down and can not get to a refuge area or the next exit.


Part of the advice is to exit via the nearside door if there is a barrier where you can take refuge. If there isn’t, the advice is to sit tight with your seatbelts on, and hazard lights activated.  What choice would you make if you were a mother with two young children strapped into child safety seats?  Stay?  Go?  Sophie’s choice?


These are all split-second life or death decisions.


Keeping your fingers crossed may help.


Smart Motorways are discussed in our 3.5 hour CPC Motorway module included in our range of driver cpc periodic training modules.

The module examines the changes to the network with the introduction of smart motorways and the variations in type,

Controlled motorways
Dynamic hard shoulder running
All Lane running

The course examines the technology in use to monitor traffic flow, and provides guidance including ANPR, MIDAS, and automatic signaling advice to drivers.  It examines the role of staff who work on the motorway including the roles, responsibilities and powers of the Highways England Traffic Officers, the Police, and others.  The correct action to take in case of breakdown or other emergencies is discussed to ensure that drivers understands the risks involved and how to minimise them.

Call us now on 01384 442233 for further details or complete the enquiry form.