Smart Motorways – Do They Work?

Increasingly, the UK’s roads are using smart-motorway technology to actively manage traffic flows and optimise the motorway network. But do they work, and are they safe?

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 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.

They are hopeless, they don't stop traffic jams, in my opinion they add to the problem. HGV vehicles travel at around the speed they usually activate when busy, 50 mph. Cars do the same and the flow is all at the one speed. A better way to look after congestion would be to force all HGV's into the left hand lane and leave the other lanes free to take faster traffic. Let the left hand lane do 50mph and the other lanes do whatever speed is safe. You can go through the Birmingham area and the traffic is relatively light by any standards but the variable speed is activated and of course the speed cameras are on as well. It doesn't alter the traffic volume nor the HGV volume. HS2 is going to be a white elephant, make it a goods line and send all of the stuff we see on the road via that, it will be useful and the roads will have less traffic. Whomever thought this was going to work was deluded, likely to be political and of course they don't know how to blow their nose without an instruction manual and a committee, quango or whatever they need to justify their existence

Fundamentally a good idea, but it won't work due to the morons who run it and the desire to raise cash from fines. Each individual and the management of a Smart motorway need to be legally liable for justifying whatever restriction they put on a smart motorway, and for how long. If they can't justify their actions then they themselves should be very heavily fined. Extension of the law about misconduct in public office.

Whilst not being a big fan of smart motorways, In my experience on both the M25 & M42 the slowing of the traffic in an orderly way as you approach roadworks, an accident or just high traffic volumes seems to me to be a desireable thing and you'll certainly save fuel doing a steady 40mph than yo yo ing between a standstill and 70mph and there is probably a lower risk of accidents. As to the speed cameras, well all you have to do is stick to the limit and they will catch the lunatics weaving in and out of the traffic and ignoring the speed limits. It is often the relative difference in speed that causes accidents. The speed limits should be monitored closely so that once the obstruction has gone the speed limit can be raised back to its normal level. For more years than I care to remember I used the A14/M11 and I noticed a considerable improvement in journey time when the average speed check was introduced and it feels like the same has happened with variable limits as well. The use of the hard shoulder as an extra lane does seem a not very sensible idea, not only for motorists who break down but leaving nowhere for emergency vehicles to get to accidents

or they could have the first 2 lanes just for hgv's and only the 3rd lane for cars? Yes I know making stupid statements like that doesn't help does it?

Right now they do, HGV's have that already.

You are right about the hard shoulder but so wrong about the victims of the stealth cameras you call morons. when a camera switches from 60 to 50 everyone approaching who does not brake like a lunatic risking getting rear ended gets a fine, now raised to half their weekly wage, and branded a criminal. Drivers are looking up at gantries and down at thier Speedos every few seconds in case it changes instead of the road. A huge wave of heavy braking runs back along the motorway when they switch and being in that wave is terrifying. If the guy behind was looking up or down bang! Neck brace time. Were it not for the cameras traffic would still slow at a sensible rate, as it used to do with the advisory signs. They worked but did not make money. The idea is not new, it's just the cameras to make millions every month that are new. When they were switched on speeding "offences' rose 45%. Those are all drivers who were previously law abiding but were caught out, or choose safe showing down over panic braking.

Where in my reply did I call anyone a moron? In my experience the variable speed limit is done in 10 mph steps, and the gantries are visible for some considerable distance before you reach them, for most people who were only doing around 70 all you have to do is lift your foot off the accelerator, and by the time you get to the gantry you'll be at the right speed. As to wether the previously law abiding drivers were caught out, just try driving on a motorway at 70 when it's not too busy, I tried it on the M5 the other day and was passed by almost everything except HGVs even when I used a satnav to give me the speed which usually indicates that my speedo is under reading. It seems more likely that the "law abiding" drivers simply weren't caught previously because there were no fixed cameras on our motorways. I am not saying that it is not safe to drive faster than 70 on a motorway, it's just the rules, however daft.

It's an automated system that implements 60mph and 50mph limits. Anything below that has been manually created for a specific reason but the higher reduced limits come about because the system has detected a slow down in traffic. At quiet times a slow lorry can fool the system into thinking there is congestion and there will be a reduced limit in the lorry's wake. The problem is, the system needs to detect traffic going faster than the limit to raise it. People won't exceed the limit, even in low traffic levels, because they can't exceed it without the cameras catching them. That means the low limit is stuck in place. The matrix speed limit signs were also constructed incorrectly with font that was too thin and tall. As they were installed before the problem was identified, the government type approved them retrospectively rather than replace them. The limits change from one gantry to the next and are hard to see.

The government is considering raising roadworks speed limits from 50mph to 60mph as it's identified the lower limits cause congestion. The thing is, the miles of roadworks that last years are to turn motorways into smart motorways that are all about cutting the limits to supposedly ease congestion. The latest thinking in relation to roadworks limits contradicts this. Through roadworks you have a constant 50mph limit and there are usually a couple of blokes somewhere staring into a hole if you look hard enough and they need to be kept safe. Very often the traffic is quiet where there is a reduced limit on a smart motorway. So quiet that to say the reduced limit is preventing congestion is nothing more than superstition. The limit tends to change from one gantry to the next rather than being a gradual step down and then an end to it. Drivers may go through several 60mph gantries and see that the gantries in the distance say 60mph but then an odd one in between will say 50mph. Go through that at 60mph and that's three points on your licence and £100.00 out of your wallet because you're a child killing maniac in the eyes of the law and the righteous people who say all speeding is wrong.

I found your article whilst looking for further information about the proposed conversion of the M23 to a 'Smart' motorway. I agree with your comments that the whole concept of Smart motorways is severely misguided and counter productive. I cannot, however, agree with the part where you say 'It works pretty well, and people have a general sense of how to behave like good girls and boys.' , as the current levels of congestion and poor traffic flow would simply not exist. In the case of the M23 proposal, we are faced with 2 years of capacity reduction whilst the required roadworks take place, so that a percieved increase in capacity is 'provided', at the same time as removing the ever-present refuge offered by a hard shoulder. My daily commute uses this motorway, and has steadily increased from a reliable 40 minutes, 12 years ago, to anything from an hour to longer, at present. When the works start - and possibly afterwards - I forsee me avoiding the motorway altogether, and travelling across country instead, as it will be more predictable, timewise. Surely this is precisely the opposite of what motorways are for. The highways dept/government need to concentrate more on preventing the causes of congestion ( i.e. poor lane discipline, bad road layouts & terribly phased - or unnecessary traffic signals), rather than tackling it with a (very expensive, and ineffective) sledgehammer. Very, very disappointed - but not surprised. :(

P.S. The government really need to be introduced to the maxim - 'Dont confuse activity with progress'