Time to ban the “smart motorway” death traps

A motorway with four lanes and no hard shoulder. A small refuge area can be seen on the left: a short lay-by with yellow paving. The road is busy with cars, vans, coaches and trucks.An all-party group of MPs has said that the roll-out of so-called smart motorways, in particular the “all lane running” (ALR) arrangement in which the hard shoulder is permanently converted into a driving lane and there are refuges every mile or so, should be stopped as it is dangerous to both motorists and to recovery workers. There are more than 100 miles of such motorways in England and there are plans to convert 225 more miles (there is a full list of the schemes here). They are mainly found on busy stretches around towns and cities; rural motorways such as the M40 and the M4 in Wiltshire still have hard shoulders and still will have for the foreseeable future. As a truck driver, I do believe this arrangement is unsafe; I have personally had two near misses on all lane running motorways where I got too close for comfort to vehicles stopped in the left lane.

Hard shoulders have been part of the specification for motorways in the UK since the beginning; they were for use in emergencies only, either for people who had broken down or for emergency vehicles that needed to get up a queue to an accident quickly. You are not allowed to stop in them for other reasons, such as for making a phone call or relieving oneself on the verge, as your vehicle would be a hazard to anyone who swerved into the hard shoulder to avoid a vehicle that stopped or slowed suddenly, or some other quickly-developing hazard (I have seen trucks drift into the hard shoulder on more than one occasion, usually because the driver was on his phone, programming his sat-nav, or may not have been fully awake). The point is that there is another strip of tarmac between the left lane and the edge of the road. In the rush to widen motorways to relieve congestion while saving money and avoiding buying up another strip of countryside (or town) and needing to widen bridges and so on, the government has commandeered the hard shoulder.

Initially, such motorways retained the hard shoulder which could be turned into a lane at busy times (as on the M1 in Bedfordshire and M42 and M6 around Birmingham), known as a “dynamic hard shoulder”, but more recent conversions have been to all lane running. It’s true that some motorists get confused, partly because in some places there is insufficient warning that the hard shoulder is closed, and that vehicles still break down in the hard shoulder when it is in use as a lane and the consequences of a strike are the same. But I believe that the reason for all lane running being preferred over dynamic hard shoulders comes down to money and simplicity (as well as the fact that some drivers simply refuse to use the additional lane because they believe it to be unsafe). With a dynamic hard shoulder, people need to be watching over the motorway to decide whether to switch it or not. It just needs less manpower to run.

Highways England, the government agency that runs motorways and trunk roads in England, insists smart motorways are safe. I’m sure they would, as they are the body that has been administering the conversions and monitoring the roads for years. No doubt that also they would blame distracted drivers for any collisions. The problem is that distraction is a fact of life when driving, and is not always the driver’s fault as such (as when they are looking at a mobile phone, for example); they could be looking in the mirror while trying to change lanes, or adjusting the climate controls (or looking for them, as those on certain DAF trucks are hidden and unlit), or attending as best he can to some other necessity. Ultimately it does not matter why a driver is distracted; the bottom line is that a distracted driver is less likely to hit a stationary vehicle if it has stopped on the hard shoulder than if it is stopped in lane 1.

While my impressions are as a driver, I have also spoken to a recovery worker who told me that he found all lane running, such as recently imposed on the M3 in Surrey, to be unsafe. Even if “red X” warnings are displayed on overhead gantries, some drivers ignore them and drive on until they actually see the accident scene and, because other drivers will be changing lanes and slowing down (often forming a queue), they may well be going faster than everyone else. As part of the recent BBC 5 Live investigation, recovery workers told of their fears about road safety when working on motorways without hard shoulders.

These roads are death traps. No more stretches of road should be converted; if the extra lane is needed, it should be on a dynamic basis and the speed limit should be reduced whenever the hard shoulder is being used as a lane. They should not be sacrificing people’s safety to save money.

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