Being safe on ‘smart’ motorways is essential
Introducing so-called ‘smart’ motorways on our roads network may have seemed like a good idea but, suggests Iain Robertson, as with a lot of half-baked decisions made for our primary driving routes, driving smart may not be the smartest decision.
In a survey carried out by Highways England it was revealed that concerns over safety and confusion about electronic road signs are leading to motorists not using smart motorways as was originally intended. However, whether we like them, or not, they are here to stay.
Defining a smart motorway demands an understanding of how to manage overcrowded, congestion-packed roads. In essence, the hard shoulder, which should have been reinforced to cater for heavier traffic loads, is drawn into use as a part-time lane. The opportunities to use it are declared on the overhead gantries that carry electronic signs. In fact, there are three different types of smart motorway: controlled motorways, dynamic hard shoulder running schemes and all lane running schemes. Highways England has stated that it will soon phase out the dynamic schemes in favour of all lane. Where a specific lane shows a ‘red cross’, it is the driver’s responsibility to leave that lane as soon as possible and move to an ‘open’ lane.
While speed is a consideration, especially in trying to control congestion, the maximum speed indicated by the electronic signs must be adhered to as closely as possible. Where no speed indication is made, the 70mph National Speed Limit is enforced. Most of us will be aware that, between road markings and overhead cameras, which are not a fixing on all gantries, exceeding the posted speed may result in both penalty points and a fine.
However, removal of the hard shoulder, even though Highways England states that it has installed Emergency Refuge Areas (ERAs) at around 1.5-miles apart, does pose significant safety problems. While CCTV coverage is extensive on smart motorways and the operators are very reactive to distressful situations, such as a vehicle stoppage, or a crash, other road-users may not be as forward thinking. Ignoring the overhead gantries and their instructions is essential.
It would help if the signs were easier understood. Of course, you can acquire a latest copy of the Highway Code, which has a section dedicated to smart motorways and their rules. Yet, apart from the aforementioned ‘red cross’ closed lane warning, the amber arrow pointing either left, or right, and surrounded by flashing amber warning lights, is an instruction to move lane to the recommended one, as soon as possible, having taken all safety aspects into account.
However, the greatest concern shown by motorists about the use of the hard shoulder for normal traffic flow is related to fear of stationary vehicles ahead, or debris that may have been flung onto it, with a lack of escape route to the left being of lesser concern. The only real solution, apart from driver education, is for brand new lanes to be added to our motorways and not to remove them from regular usage.
Conclusion: Being safe on our roads network is every driver’s responsibility, to himself, passengers and other road users. If you remain unsure about smart motorways, check out the rules in the latest edition of the Highway Code for clarification.