Are Smart Motorways Really Smart?


After smartphones and smart televisions, the UK has now adopted smart motorways to optimise traffic flow and give travellers more driving space. These motorways lack hard shoulders, areas on the side for emergency purposes, in an attempt to give drivers more open lanes to drive in. According to the government, this improves traffic flow and makes highways safer.

Despite criticism of a safety threat because of a lack of hard shoulders, authorities claim that smart motorways are safer than traditional motorways.  How?

Smart motorways have Emergency Refuge Areas (ERAs) at a distance of 1.5 miles each. Drivers experiencing problems with their vehicles or other emergencies are requested to get to the nearest ERA and stop there for assistance. This prevents crimes in hard shoulder areas and also gives drivers plenty of more space to properly drive, technically preventing accidents and reducing travel time.

However, if a car completely breaks down in the middle of a smart motorway, this may pose a problem and a significant safety threat. Imagine a car positioned in the middle of a highway, completely unable to move and other cars speeding towards that point without any indication of a halt? In most cases, you can anticipate a hefty accident.

Smart motorways combat this with the help of close circuit television operators who monitor the highway. Upon detection of a stopped vehicle, mark that lane with a huge red X on gantries to prevent vehicles from crashing into the stopped vehicle. The vehicle is then provided help. However, reportedly, spotting a stopped vehicle can take as long as 17 minutes or even longer if the camera is not pointed in the right direction- delaying much-needed help and increasing the chances of an accident.

The public is sceptical about the removal of the hard shoulder and the number of incidents that have occurred due to vehicles breaking down in a live lane and away from an ERA. While Highways England has suggested that perhaps the situation can be improved with a new stopped vehicle detection technology and with an increase in the number of ERAs, they do not advocate the inclusion of a hard shoulder. They are of course, completely opposed to the idea of turning smart motorways into traditional motorways again.

Highways England claims that smart motorways are 25% safer than traditional motorways.  However, recent data and a report compiled by Highways England reveals that a car stopped on a smart motorway is three times more dangerous than one at a halt in a hard shoulder.

Measures are being taken to make smart highways safer, such as the development of automated stopped vehicle indication technology, and perhaps the addition of more ERAs. Nevertheless, the question stands whether this suffices and makes up for the non-existence of a hard shoulder?

The UK isn’t so sure that smart highways are a smart move and many have started advocating a return to traditional roads. While other things in life spiral forward, will we be going back to tradition when it comes to the motorway?

Highways England will try to make motorways smarter and not to mention safer in the meantime, but what do you think about the situation?

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