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Smart motorways How do they work

In an age where your entire music collection can fit in your pocket and you can order a pizza by clicking a button, it should come as no surprise that even motorways have had a technology transformation.

Yep, we’re talking about smart motorways. Heard of them? Check out how they actually work and whether or not they are effective…

Smart what now?

Back in 2013 the Highways Agencies coined the media-friendly term ‘Smart Motorways’ to describe the technology managing traffic flow on the motorways. In a nutshell - motorways got smart.

How do they work in practice?

To understand how a smart motorway works, you have to understand the different types:

  • All lanes running: From 2013 when the concept of a smart motorway was born, ‘all lanes running’ was the prototype. It is defined by having differing speed limits and no hard shoulder – just an emergency area every 2.5km. 
  • Controlled motorway: Multiple lanes, differing speed limits and a hard shoulder used for emergencies only.
  • Hard shoulder running: Differing speed limits and a hard shoulder which is only opened during particularly busy times. Overhead signs show when it is and isn’t in use.

The Highways Agency has regional centres, they use CCTV cameras and message signs to effectively manage these new breed of motorways.

They can set speed restrictions and even close down lanes by using the large overhead signs. You can learn more about how smart motorways work by checking out this government factsheet.

How do I drive on a smart motorway?

Obviously the above means change and the government advice for driving safely on a smart motorway is:

  • Never drive under a red X
  • Keep to all speed limits shown on overhead signs
  • Avoid the hard shoulder unless directed otherwise
  • Use the new emergency refuge areas where no hard shoulder is available
  • Always use your hazard lights if you break down

Have they made any differences?

It might seem like quite a lot of faff – but is it worth it? Well the M42 was considered the guinea pig, and as guinea pigs go, it looks promising. Within the first six months:

  • A reduction in variability journey times of up to 27%
  • Accidents fell from 5 per month to 1.5 per month
  • Pollution fell 10%
  • Fuel consumption fell 4%
  • Speed limits benefited from a 98% compliance rate
  • 84% of uses felt confident using the hard shoulder, 68% felt better informed about traffic conditions and 60% wanted the scheme expanded

Everything sounds hunky dory, but the rise of smart motorways has its fair share of critics. Friends of the Earth said it was a case of “widening on the cheap” and doubted the accuracy of the emission statistics.

The Royal Society for Prevention of Accidents suggested that emergency services could take longer to reach accidents. In defence, the Highways Agency cited the 5,000 miles of dual carriageway which doesn’t have a hard shoulder.

Despite the above criticisms, smart motorways look set to continue with more planned conversions all over the UK. We think when managed properly they can be very effective at managing traffic, though the concept is still a little bit sci-fi sounding, even for us! Stay tuned for flying cars…


published: 05/06/2015 09:05:07

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