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Dynamic smart motorways axed

Review into smart motorways results in dynamic hard shoulders being scrapped in favour of permanent all-lane running roads.

smart motorway

Smart motorways with dynamic hard shoulders - which can temporarily become a live lane at busy times - are to be converted to permanent all-lane running by the end of March 2025, the Government has announced.

Having conducted a ‘stocktake’ of smart motorways, which have been the subject of much criticism recently, the Department for Transport (DfT) has announced a series of measures to make the controversial roads safer as they continue to be rolled out across the UK.

In its newly-published report, the DfT acknowledges that dynamic hard shoulder running - where the hard shoulder is used as a live lane to increase capacity temporarily at peak times - has “the potential to cause confusion for motorists”. As such, hard shoulders on these roads will be converted into permanent running lanes, meaning there won’t be a hard shoulder at all.

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Emergency Refuge Areas (ERAs), which drivers are supposed to pull into if they suffer a breakdown, will be installed no more than one mile apart on any new stretches of smart motorway, while the aim will be to have them at an average of 0.75 miles apart. The 0.75-mile refuge area rule will also be instituted on existing stretches of smart motorway where possible.

Highways England - the public body which runs the UK’s Strategic Road Networks of motorways and major A roads - has also been asked by the DfT to install Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) technology across the smart motorway network within the next 36 months. This technology is able to quickly detect any cars that stop in a live lane, automatically alerting Highways England staff.

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At present, CCTV cameras are used to monitor for breakdowns in live lanes, with the average time for traffic officers getting to a breakdown currently at an average 17 minutes. Highways England will now aim to reduce this to 10 minutes by assigning additional traffic officers to patrol the roads.

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A number of other measures have also been announced, including displaying more warning messages to drivers on overhead gantry signs, making ERAs more visible and marking them on sat-nav maps.

Edmund King, president of the AA, commented: “The fact that 38 per cent of breakdowns happen in live lanes on smart motorways means drivers have been at risk.

“Tragically, people have lost their lives and, in some cases, coroners have indicated this could have been avoided. No driver wants to be stuck in a live lane with nowhere to go; at best it is incredibly distressing, at worst it can be fatal."

He added: “We applaud the current Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps MP, for instigating the review and taking this issue very seriously.”

Smart motorways: breakdowns cause a month’s worth of lane closures

The news that dymanic smart motorways will be shut down comes after research discovered that broken-down vehicles caused smart motorway lanes to be closed for more than a month over a two-year period.

From August 2017 to October 2019, motorway lanes were closed for 945 hours - equivalent to 39 days - between Junction 2 and Junction 4a of the M3 due to vehicles breaking down in a live lane, according to a Freedom of Information request to Highways England made by the AA.

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There were a total of 2,227 breakdowns on the stretch of all-lane running (ALR) smart motorways during the two-year period, with each one closing a lane for an average of 25 minutes.

Over the same period, there were 318 hours of delays caused by 271 traffic collisions, with lanes being closed for an average of one hour and 10 minutes each time.

Other issues - including obstructions, infrastructure defects and fires - contributed to a total of 2,802 incidents over the two-year period and saw motorway lanes close for a total of 1,451 hours - or 60 days.

Incident type

Number of incidents

Total time closed (hours:minutes.seconds)

Average closure time per incident (hours:minutes.seconds)

Breakdown

2,227

945:25.27

00:25.28

Traffic collision

271

318:44.12

01:10.34

Obstruction

158

67:52.10

00:25.46

Other

84

08:28.05

00:06.03

Infrastructure defect

17

46:19.29

02:43.30

Fire

15

45:45.36

02:51.02

Animal on network

12

04:30.30

00:22.32

Abandoned vehicle

10

08:41.37

00:52.10

Pedestrian on network

5

01:39.13

00:19.51

Spillage

1

00:01.00

00:01.00

Suicide/attempted suicide

1

00:11.00

00:11.00

Weather conditions

1

04:12.00

04:12.00

TOTAL

2,802

1451:50.19

00:25.37

Improving safety was not a “primary goal” for smart motorways, documents reveal

Improving road safety was not a "primary goal" when smart motorways were first introduced, according to a report produced in 2012 by the Highways Agency - Highways England’s predecessor - which considered the provision of additional emergency refuge areas (ERAs) surrounding a fatality hotspot on the M1 north of Nottingham.

The document stated: “The primary goals for the scheme do not include improving safety and the road user safety objective is to ensure that the scheme is no less safe than the safety baseline.”

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The AA, which uncovered the document, criticised this goal for being “unambitious and complacent”.

The report shows the Highways Agency knew there was a risk that the number of vehicles stopping in live lanes would increase, and set out two options to mitigate this. The first would have seen the number of ERAs on the stretch of road increased from eight to 10 and an average spacing of 1,543 metres, at a cost of between £0.35m and £0.7m.

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The second option was to increase the number of ERAs to 14 and an average spacing of 1,304 metres, costing £1m to £2m. The report said either of these options would result in a “small net decrease in risk to road users”, but in spite of this no action was taken.

With an average of 2,500 metres spacing, the Highways Agency estimated between 25.99 per cent and 26.1 per cent breakdowns would occur in live lanes; in reality, the current rate on such stretches is as high as 38 per cent.

According to the AA, there were five fatalities on the 16-mile stretch of the M1 between junctions 30 and 35a from September 2018 to December 2019.

Exclusive: Smart motorway speed cameras offer 60-second grace period

Drivers using smart motorways have 60 seconds to reduce their speed after a reduction in the variable speed limit is displayed on the overhead gantries, Auto Express can reveal. After the one-minute grace period, speed cameras start enforcement at the new signposted limit.

Responding to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, Highways England - the Government-owned company that runs England’s Strategic Road Network of motorways and major A roads - confirmed that drivers are given a one-minute grace period.

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“Following a change in the speed displayed by signals there is a 60-second ‘grace period’ before HADECS3 cameras start enforcement, giving time for drivers to adapt to the new mandatory speed limit, especially when speed limits are reduced due to slow-moving or queuing traffic up ahead,” the organisation said. “This gives drivers time to slow down and reduces the need for braking sharply.”

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Smart motorways have a default speed limit of 70mph, but Highways England is able to lower the limit to 60, 50 or 40mph when operatives deem it necessary. When this happens, the new limit is displayed on overhead gantries and enforced by HADECS3 speed cameras, sometimes referred to colloquially as “stealth” cameras due to their being small, grey units that are much harder to spot than that larger yellow Gatso and Truvelo cameras used elsewhere.

Smart motorways: breakdown recovery firms won’t stop for vehicles in closed ‘red X’ lanes

Recovery firms are not allowed to stop and help motorists whose vehicles have broken down on smart motorway lanes that have been closed with ‘red X’ signs. Instead, staff from firms like the AA, Green Flag and RAC must wait for police or Highways England vehicles to physically close the lane or tow the vehicle to a refuge area, according to official guidance.

The ‘best practice guidelines’ from the Survive Group - formed of senior police officers, Highways England and all major recovery firms - says breakdown operatives should “Never work in a live lane of a motorway lane unless the lane has been closed by a Police vehicle, HE [Highways England] Traffic Officer vehicle or Impact Protection Vehicle...Do not rely on a red X closure sign.”

While it is illegal to drive in closed ‘red X’ lanes, 180,000 drivers received warning letters in the 18 months between 2017 and summer 2018 for the offence - which is now enforced by cameras and results in three penalty points and a £100 fine. 

The news follows a damning Highways England report being unearthed by the AA, which found breaking down in the live lane of a smart motorway during off-peak hours is 216 per cent more dangerous than doing so on a conventional motorway.

Do you think roads are getting more dangerous? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below...

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