It’s 2018, and that means everything in our lives is becoming smarter. We’ve got smart TVs, smart appliances, smart speakers— even our entire home can be classified as “smart”. Given the smart revolution, it’s no surprise that the UK’s largest transport system has also undergone a smart makeover. The future of highways in this country involves smart motorways. Curious to find out more? Then read on.
Not the same kind of “smart”
First and foremost, it’s important to establish that smart motorways aren’t particularly… smart. In the examples listed in the opening paragraph, “smart” is used by the manufacturers to indicate a level of autonomy from the device, a cleverness; an ability to answer tasks or perform functions. Smart motorways don’t really have this capacity. While they do utilise technology to produce results, the system is still operated by people. So, if you’re concerned that a smart motorway means the control of the flow of traffic is handing over to a piece of AI, don’t be. There’s still a human eye overseeing the process.
What makes a motorway “smart”?
So now we’ve established that smart motorways aren’t able to think for themselves, let’s dive into how they exactly differ from “dumb” motorways. In a nutshell, smart motorways are used to control the flow of traffic. There are various ways that this can be done:
• Introducing variable speed limits where appropriate, to try and alleviate congestion
• Using cameras to monitor that the speed limit — variable or not — is adhered to across a section of motorway.
• Potentially opening the hard shoulder for use as an additional lane during periods of heavy congestion.
There are three different ways these innovations can be implemented.
• A controlled motorway. Controlled motorways have variable speed limits that can be used to control the flow of traffic and ease congestion. They do not allow the hard shoulder to be used.
• A dynamic hard shoulder. A motorway with a dynamic hard shoulder means that the hard shoulder can be used as a lane on occasion. Whether or not the hard shoulder can be used is indicated to drivers via electronic signals from a gantry. Variable speed limits are also used.
• An all lane running motorway. The hard shoulder effectively becomes another permanent lane, and is always available for use by all drivers. All three of these types are being implemented across the UK. However, the dynamic hard shoulder and all-lane running options have drawn particular criticism from campaigning groups.
The loss of the hard shoulder
The hard shoulder has always been an essential component of motorway driving. It is there if you suddenly need to pull over due to a car malfunction. It’s also a vital option for emergency vehicles to travel at speed through a congested area. The idea of effectively losing the hard shoulder on smart motorways has drawn a huge amount of concern from a variety of groups, including disability campaigners and environmental groups. Motoring groups also fear the loss of the ability to pull over on the hard shoulder if a vehicle is malfunctioning.
These criticisms have been somewhat answered by Highways England. They state that “Emergency Refuge Areas” will be created on smart motorways, these will allow vehicles to stop as they would have done on a standard hard shoulder. However, these Emergency Refuge Areas (commonly abbreviated to ERAs) are spaced erratically. You could find yourself in an emergency situation but 1.5 miles from the nearest safe place to stop.
Despite these concerns, the UK government has moved forward with the implementation of smart motorways across certain sections of the country— and, in fairness, they have reason to do so.
The statistics favour smart motorways
Here’s the good news; statistically, smart motorways seem to be a very good idea. Three key data points have been produced from the opening of the first section of smart motorway in 2006, and they all indicate positive results:
• Personal injury accidents on smart motorways were reduced by half.
• The severity of the accidents that did occur was greatly diminished, with zero fatalities
• Journey reliability improved by 22%
Furthermore, smart motorways are far quicker and more affordable to establish than alternatives such as motorway widening. So, there is definitely an argument for smart motorways’ inclusion among our roads. The improved journey reliability and lower accident numbers could be hugely beneficial to all.
Given that there is a strong argument for the implementation of smart motorways, and the fact that many schemes are already well underway, it’s probably time to learn how to drive on them.
The essentials you need to know when driving on a smart motorway
• Be more aware of your speed than ever. Smart motorways are tracked constantly by cameras, so failing to adhere to the speed limit is all the more likely to be noticed.
• Remember that the speed limit can be variable, so don’t presume that you’re able to travel at 70mph; check and make sure before you do so.
• Only drive on the hard shoulder if directed to do so. If there is a red “X” symbol on the gantries, then this means you cannot use the hard shoulder.
• If you experience problems while driving, look for the nearest ERA. While the spacing of ERAs can be unpredictable, Highways England state that you should never be more than 1.5 miles away from one.
• If there is no ERA in sight, then stop on the verge (if possible) or in the nearside lane. You should immediately put your hazard lights on. Exit the vehicle when safe to do so and go to stand on the verge, then call for assistance from there. It’s important not to stay within the vehicle due to the increased risk of accidents from occupying an active lane.
In conclusion Smart motorways are gradually being implemented throughout the UK, so getting to know them better is a sensible idea. Keep the above tips in mind, and you should be ready for any smart motorway that you encounter in future.