• Kelvin Gearing

Smart Motorways.....Or Not So Smart?

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

The first smart motorway in England opened in 2006. If I remember correctly, it was the M42 in the Midlands...though don't quote me on that. At the time, I was running my previous business (Kage Express) and I spent a lot of time out and about on the roads. My initial impression was not a good one. I was actually on national radio one day, discussing the issue and mentioning how I did not think they would work due to safety concerns. These days smart motorways are almost everywhere, so have I changed my opinion?

First of all, I do see a positive. The extra lane has undoubtedly helped the flow of traffic in problem areas a lot of the time. You only need to drive south down the M6 to J19 (Knutsford), to see that the traffic flows much easier on the roads where the extra lane is in operation. This junction in particular, could see you delayed at any time of day and now is usually a breeze. However, this is the minimum expectation that you would have for an increase in road capacity and a change in junction layouts. When you work in transport though, any improvement in traffic flow is welcomed.

So, having admitted to seeing some positive impacts of the smart motorway revolution, am I converted in to a believer? Well, not quite. Firstly, the evidence shows that smart motorways are actually safer statistically than regular motorways. I however remain unconvinced. I believe that turning the hard shoulder in to a lane and installing refuge areas, must be less safe than being able to pull over at any point on a hard shoulder. These are the concerns I had originally and I still have them. I guess time will tell, but it is at least encouraging that early statistics do not show this.

Secondly, we have the variable speed limits. Now in theory, I believe these are a good idea. They can help to keep traffic moving in peak times and can also influence lane control when necessary. Very much like the matrix system, they should be a huge positive. However, you can't always trust what the signs are saying. They just don't seem to be up to date some of the time. You will often be travelling on a smart motorway and the variable speed limit will be in effect for no reason what-so-ever. Why is this? Is this simply because some operator has got distracted and not turned them off? Have they got lost on the way back from the canteen? The cynic in me wonders if this is done purposely to catch unaware motorists with speed cameras, but I'm sure that is not the case.

The other problem that I have noticed with the variable speed limits, is that they can change randomly. You can go through one that says 60 mph and then the next one will be 40 mph, only for the one after that to be 60 mph again. With no reason for this change, it can be infuriating and confusing. This is not to mention dangerous. You have traffic flowing and having to slow down with very little warning at times and there is also the issue of drivers having to keep looking at the signs, rather than the traffic around them as a result. This is the major failing that I have noticed thus far in using these roads. I would be interested to see if there is a statistical increase in minor collisions in these variable speed limit areas.

Smart motorway and speed limits
A smart motorway, with variable speed limits in action.

In conclusion, I am still far from sold on smart motorways. They have on going issues and still raise safety concerns. I would much rather the government invested properly in increasing the road infrastructure, but that is obviously not going to happen. I also understand the restrictions of building new roads on greenbelt land, which nobody really wants to see. I do however like them more than I thought I would in the beginning, so that is a at least some kind of positive outcome.