Review: Britain’s Killer Motorways

A motorway with four lanes and no hard shoulders with trees on either side, with hills in the distance, with the sun in the top-right corner.
A “smart motorway”

This week’s BBC Panorama (available until January 2021) was about a recent report into the smart motorway system, which has been revealed to be what many of us who have to use them regularly have known for years: that they are dangerous, because anyone who breaks down usually has nowhere to go except sit in a live traffic lane where they have fast-moving traffic coming up behind them where previously they could have moved over to a hard shoulder which is off limits to moving traffic. The government has been denying that there is a problem for years and pointing to ‘research’ that shows that they are safe. I always doubted this, not least because this ‘research’ has been done at a time when more capacity is needed but there is not the money to actually widen motorways to add the extra lane; it seems rather convenient and I suspected that the conclusion that they were safe came from trickery such as blaming the driver for being distracted. The report has provoked a great deal of public debate such as on radio phone-ins etc, but this programme left a great deal to be desired and came to an entirely wrong conclusion.

Generally there are three types of smart motorway. One has a hard shoulder and is simply ‘managed’ and has speed limits that vary when the road is congested, usually between the maximum speed limit and 40mph (sometimes less, such as around an accident or when there is a closure), communicated through lights on gantries that look like signs; this was the first type and the best-known is on the M25 near Heathrow. A second has a ‘dynamic’ hard shoulder which can be redeployed as an extra lane at busy times, and this is achieved through changing signs and gantry lights. The third has only lanes (usually four) and no hard shoulder. The latter two are the types that have become notorious for accidents because drivers assume that there will be no stationary vehicles in the lanes and that if there are, they will have warning from the overhead screens. This, however, is not always the case.

Panorama mostly featured personal stories of people being seriously injured or killed after their car broke down on one of these ‘smart’ motorways; in some cases they were in the cars which were hit, and in others they were hit after they had got out. They interviewed people at a service station as to what they thought a ‘smart motorway’ was and several interviewees did not know, despite having just driven through one. They interviewed Mike Penning, a former transport minister who had signed off on some of the ‘smart motorway’ conversions in 2010, having been convinced by the success of an early dynamic motorway project on the M42 in Warwickshire. He claimed he had been deceived about the issue of the emergency lay-bys which were about 600 metres apart on the M42 but more than two miles apart in the case of some of the newer projects. I find this explanation somewhat unconvincing; surely it is a minister’s job to read proposals before signing off on them.

However, the programme also misrepresented some of the facts about ‘smart’ motorways and then based a very wrong conclusion on it, namely that dynamic motorways, such as the section of the M42 which was such a success, are even more dangerous than plain smart motorways. One of the fatal crashes whose surviving family members were featured happened on such a section (on the M6 through the Birmingham suburbs) but the programme showed signed warnings in big bold type saying “DON’T USE HARD SHOULDER”. In fact, they are much smaller than those shown in the programme and say “Hardshoulder (sic) for emergency use only”. It would be possible to give much clearer warnings on sections where the hard shoulder is closed, including flashing lights with arrows and the simple words “GET OVER”. When the traffic is heavy enough to merit opening the hard shoulder to traffic, it stands to reason that the speed limit should also be lower, as it often is at congested times; I would suggest no higher than 50mph. Finally, there are places where a stretch where the hard shoulder has been converted to a lane permanently changes into a dynamic one, usually just after a junction, and the change occurs just after a bend without adequate warning; the M1 southbound after junction 11 (A505 Luton/Dunstable) is the worst example. The warning needs to be seen in good time, in this case before rather than after the bend.

The advantages of the dynamic system is that there is still a hard shoulder which is still there at times when traffic is flowing freely and faster; this is when you will have cars doing 70mph or sometimes more (though there are speed cameras on these stretches which are clearly advertised). If you break down there when flow is free and the hard shoulder is closed to traffic as it is not needed, the chances of being hit from behind are greatly reduced; if you break down at an off-peak time on an all-lane motorway where people are doing 70mph or more, the chances of a high-speed rear shunt, or of an accident caused by a vehicle swerving to avoid the stationary vehicle, are that much higher. The dangers of the dynamic arrangement can be mitigated through reduced speed limits, better signage and public education (the “red X” lights have always been present, but have been used much more frequently in the last few years and many drivers seem to be unaware of what they mean, i.e. that the lane is closed and they must not drive in it because there is a stationary vehicle, a barrier or a hole in the road surface ahead).

The Panorama programme also discussed the fact that the technology is not up to scratch and often fails to detect stationary vehicles. I have talked about this on this site previously; on one occasion the “stranded vehicle” warning appeared only beyond the vehicle itself which I had to swerve to avoid. I have had to call 999 to report these vehicles on several occasions and each time had difficulty getting the operator to understand exactly where it was, even after I gave them a mile-post reference (one operator told me, wrongly, that the police do not use them), and they carried on asking me pointless questions, including my address and date of birth (!), while car after car and truck after truck sped past the stranded vehicle.

So, now it is confirmed what many of us professional drivers, as well as breakdown rescue workers, have known for years: that motorways without hard shoulders are death traps. It’s a scandal that huge amounts of public money have been spent in converting motorways in this way and at the cost of huge disruption to drivers over several years (the M1 in particular has not been without such a scheme ongoing for many years). I would suggest that the nearside lane of all motorways that lack hard shoulders should be closed other than at peak times; that when the hard shoulder is open, the speed limit should be no higher than 50mph; that drivers be educated about driving on them (the government can send leaflets to every address where a driving licence is registered) and 999 operators be properly informed about the use of mile-post references and other common means of identifying the location of a hazard; and that signage and light warnings be made very much clearer and normally be in large and clearly readable type. All schemes that are approved but have not started must be put on hold if not cancelled. We must not have any more of these lethal motorways opened.

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