Smart motorways will stay...for now


Hojol Uddin, a partner at JMW Solicitors, says the concept behind smart motorways is multifaceted and they are not about to be scrapped.

It's a familiar sight for drivers on the M1, M4, M5, M20, M25, M40, M42, M60, M62, M42 and M6; smart motorways are on the increase.

The idea behind smart motorways was to reduce congestion by actively controlling traffic flow, with the aim of improving journeys for drivers, as well as importantly preparing for advances in technology for automated vehicles in the future.

On a practical level, smart motorways actively vary speed limits (which you have to adhere to) and, through all lane running (ALR) open up sections of the hard shoulder to increase traffic flow.

National Highways, previously Highways England, states that 'by varying speed limits and using the hard shoulder as an extra lane during busy times, we can help you to avoid having to brake or be at a standstill so that you get where you need to be'.

However, smart motorways have always been a cause for concern, and more so after several high profile investigations and reports of incidents and deaths particularly caused by the opening of the hard shoulder.

Smart motorways first hit the headlines back in 2013 when flaws within the prosecution of cases in particular on the M42/M6 Toll roads and others became apparent. Prior to this, most people were unfamiliar with these networks.

As a result, the law has been gradually changed to adapt for technological advances and the Government’s pledge to be the leader in adapting an eco-system to accommodate Autonomous Vehicles (AV), including smart motorways.

Anyone who drives on these motorways will be aware that when a vehicle is broken down and stranded, it can cause havoc on the road before assistance is obtained, and every second can count in such circumstances to prevent serious injury or death.

A poll was recently undertaken by the RAC in which suggested 6 in 10 drivers (62%) think smart motorways should be scrapped and the hard shoulder put back into operation. It clearly remains a major safety concern for motorists.

The Office of Road and Rail (ORR) published a report earlier this summer that offered a number of recommendations. It came on the back of concerns that National Highways had not thoroughly investigated the dangers of removing the hard shoulder.

Having travelled on these smart motorways for years, I do believe that they work. I am of the view that the concept behind smart motorways was multifaceted and helped the network prepare for traffic flow, congestion, and eventually autonomous vehicles. Therefore I do not want to see them being scrapped just yet, especially if the recommendations from the ORR report are implemented.

However, perhaps the investment should have been directed to infrastructure for connected and autonomous vehicles (CAV), instead of heavy spending on the physical infrastructure of these smart motorways. In time this infrastructure could become redundant, particularly as the UK seeks to be a world leader in CAVs and automated lane keeping systems (ALKS).

Whether smart motorways are truly smart remains up for debate. Those who have lost loved ones after they were stranded on the hard shoulder while it was in use will no doubt be of the view that smart motorways are not fit for purpose and should be scrapped.

Hojol Uddin is a partner at JMW Solicitors

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