My dictionary defines progress as ‘development towards an improved or more advanced condition’. Strangely, it omits the phrase, ‘getting helplessly stuck in your car and flattened by an Eddie Stobart Type 2 Scania Road Train’.
This is one of many concerns thrown up by Highways England’s latest obsession: smart motorways. This is the government’s way of turning the country’s safest, quickest roads into the slowest, most dangerous roads on the planet.
On a motorway, you’re separated from the homicidal nutters coming the other way by a crash barrier. Traffic joins safely on long slip roads. Driving is simple – free from junctions, roundabouts and traffic lights. There are no learners - yet (until next year) or cyclists.
It works pretty well, and people have a general sense of how to behave like good girls and boys.
But with smart motorways, the government believes you’ll arrive earlier at your destination if you travel there more slowly. But I studied physics at school, and I’m pretty sure they’re wrong.
To enforce this, smart motorways reduce the speed limit from 70 to 50 using sensors more sensitive than the nasal receptors of the star-nosed mole. They’ll even reduce limits to 40 in some instances. But that’s probably just to catch you out.
The government also believes it’s safer to remove the hard shoulder during certain periods (or completely), so that we get an extra lane of traffic. That’s like saying, to make children’s school lessons more exciting, their teacher should be replaced by a ravenous polar bear.
OK, OK, so we get periodic refuge areas, which give you safe harbour if you break down or run out of fuel. But these areas are poorly signposted and lit like a disused coalmine. You’d also have to instruct your car to break down very, very near one, and the last time I checked, my car didn’t have ears.
The refuge areas are smaller than the brain of the man who came up with the idea in the first place. There’s room only for half a smart car and no recovery vehicle. There’s no acceleration lane to rejoin traffic safely. And, with no hard shoulder, by the time your emergency vehicle has reached you, you’ll be in the market for a mobility scooter.
To counter these concerns, Highways England is trialling a redesigned emergency area with better signs and a highly visible orange road surface. But that’s like putting a funny hat on Philip Hammond and expecting him to be more interesting. He’s
Chancellor of the Exchequer, by the way.
But smart motorways come with a familiar theme attached – speed cameras. These are to ordinary speed cameras what triffids were to nasturtiums.
Redflex Hadecs3s are being called out as stealth cameras. They’re small. They’ll get you when you’re doing 71. And they’re painted grey, sitting on the overhead gantries like bored owls. You’d almost think the government don’t want you to slow down.
Of course they don’t. Figures released following a Freedom of Information request from Confused.com show that more than £21 million of fines have already been issued to drivers on smart motorways. And new speeding laws mean some drivers could even be hit with £2500 penalties.
But let’s leave the last word to the AA. They know a thing or two about motoring. They’ve warned that limits on smart motorways are often cut to 50 or 60mph for no apparent reason – resulting in £100 fixed fines.
AA President Edmund King has branded limits totally inconsistent, insisting they don't always seem to reflect the reality of what's happening on the road.
He said, “The fact is that cameras are really being used to replace police. The problem is that cameras don't catch drink-drivers; they don't catch the middle-lane hoggers; they don't catch the dangerous tailgaters.”
That’s progress for you.