Smart Motorways

November 11, 2019 2:04 pm
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Since their creation in 2006, smart motorways have been a controversial topic. But, regardless of whether they are good or bad, smart motorways are here to stay. Highways England, who are responsible for the creation of smart motorways, have revealed that drivers stopping without good reason were the main cause of crashes on the motorway. Highways England’s research has also found that there were 77 deaths on traditional roads with a hard shoulder compared to nine on the smart motorways network in 2018.

However, smart motorways still remain confusing for many motorists. One main concern is the lack of hard shoulder and the distance between SOS areas. The head of roads policy at the RAC, Nicholas Lyes, challenged Highways England’s position arguing:

“The key aspect is making sure drivers understand how to use all lane running smart motorways and of course no driver should be stopping unless it is an emergency. In reality, some drivers will break down and not be able to reach an SOS area and these drivers need to have confidence that the motorways which Highways England designed, built and operate keep them as safe as possible.”

Currently, the refuge areas on smart motorways are one and a half miles apart. This will be cut to one mile on motorways built from next year. Mr O’Sullivan did point out that additional laybys would be expensive, with each layby costing around £1 million each, and in his opinion, would not improve safety.

The RAC have published an online article which discusses the Government’s promise to review smart motorway. Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, has said that he expects new recommendations to be made within weeks, after telling MPs “we know people are dying” on smart motorways. Nicholas Lyes, RAC head of roads policy said: “We welcome a commitment from the Secretary of State to review smart motorway safety. We know from our own research that drivers feel the permanent removal of the hard shoulder compromises safety. They also tell us that emergency SOS areas are located too far apart at intervals of up to 1.6 miles.”

Earlier this week, Highways England chief executive Jim O’Sullivan told the Transport Select Committee that smart motorways with a hard shoulder only used at busy times are causing confusion for drivers. O’Sullivan said it will not build anymore smart motorways with ‘dynamic hard shoulders’ because too many motorists do not understand them.

Such motorway designs are currently in use on parts of the M1, M4, M5, M6, M42 and M62 in England. Mr Shapps accepted a review is needed, but added that greater detail is required on how safe smart motorways are compared to conventional ones, insisting he wants to ensure all motorways in the country are “as safe as they possibly can be”.

Lyes adds: “While it’s important that we increase capacity on our motorway network, this should only be done using the safest design features and the latest technology which has sadly only been the case on a fraction of smart motorways.” Lyes also said that drivers must have confidence they’ll be protected from traffic in the event they suffer a breakdown in a live lane, especially when a hard shoulder has been removed.

Until the Government’s review has been concluded, here are the rules for how to drive on a smart motorway and what to look out for to keep your journey safe and stress-free. A smart motorway is a motorway that uses technology – known as Active Traffic Management (ATM) – to manage the flow of traffic. The technology is controlled from a regional traffic control centre which monitors traffic carefully and can activate and change the motorway’s signs and speed limits. This helps keep the traffic flowing freely.

According to Highways England, the introduction of smart motorways has improved many journeys for different drivers, despite some people who believe that smart motorways are more dangerous than normal motorways. Highways England published statistics from data gathered since the first smart motorway was opened that showed:

  • Per­sonal injury acci­dents have been reduced by more than half
  • Where acci­dents did occur, sever­ity was much lower over­all with zero fatal­i­ties and fewer seri­ously injured
  • Jour­ney reli­a­bil­ity has improved by 22 per cent

The RAC has argued that there has been a movement towards the permanent conversion of the hard shoulder into a running lane, which has led to concerns across the board. The RAC argue that the disappearance of the hard shoulder increases the risk to drivers who might suffer a breakdown and are unable to reach a refuge area. This is one of the issues that will be addressed in the Government’s review of smart motorways.

But how are smart motorways different from the standard motorways? Well, most rules on a smart motorway are very similar to standard motorways. For example, if a driver experiences difficulties with their vehicle, the motorist should exit the smart motorway immediately if possible. Other examples include that motorists should use the refuge areas for emergencies if there’s no hard shoulder, keep to the speed limits indicated and put on the car’s hazard lights if it breaks down.

On a smart motorway the hard shoulder can be used as a normal lane. This is indicated by either a speed limit sign being shown above the hard shoulder or by a broken white line. Due to the hard shoulder being in use in heavy traffic, there are refuge areas which have been spaced out regularly alongside the motorway. These are only to be used in case of emergencies.

One of the most important signs to know on a smart motorway is the red X. This indicates that a lane is closed. If you see a red X, move out of that lane promptly. A lane might be closed because there is debris in the road, or because there is a person or animal on the road. Authorities might be keeping the lane clear for the emergency services, such as an ambulance. It has been found by the RAC that 23 per cent of drivers surveyed admitted to disregarding the red X, either occasionally accidentally (19%), often accidentally (1%) or occasionally on purpose (3%). If a motorist does not move out of the red X marked lane, then the motorist may receive a fine.

Highways England has sent 130,000 warning letters in two years to motorway users who wrongly used the hard shoulder or ignored red X warning signs through manual enforcement. The Government amended the Road Traffic Offenders Act in 2017 to allow ignoring red X’s and driving on the hard shoulder to be added to the list of offences for which records from prescribed devices such as automatic number plate recognition cameras. If you ignore a ‘red X’ marked lane, you could be faced with a £100 penalty and three penalty points on your licence.

On a smart motorway, overhead signals will display speed limits. These speed limits can be changed to help keep a steady flow of traffic and prevents “stop-start” traffic caused by shockwave traffic jams. If no special speed limit is displayed then the national speed limit applies, which on a motorway is 70mph.

Any speed limit displayed inside a red circle is legally enforceable. If the speed limit is broken, a driver is breaking the law. Drivers are more likely to be caught and fined whilst speeding on smart motorways than any other road because there are more speed cameras on smart motorways.

For more information on smart motorways or to read the articles that were used for this blog, please look at the following weblinks:

Our team of specialist driving offence solicitors at Driving Solicitors have the experience and expertise to help and guide you through the experience of receiving a Notice for speeding on a smart motorway or for not moving out of a red X lane. Whether you think you are guilty or not guilty of these charges, please get in contact with our solicitors to fully discuss your situation and your options. So, if you want professional legal help to put together a good defence case with you, please do not hesitate to contact Driving Solicitors on 0203 488 2551 and get expert legal advice from a specialist motoring solicitor today.

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Written by:  Miriam Rhodes-Leader