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SMART MOTORWAY SCHEMES: A decade of controversy and change

Simon Williams, RAC Head of Policy, marked the significant anniversaries concerning the UK's smart motorways, notably recalling the inaugural stretch of all-lane-running motorway which opened ten years ago on the M25 in Hertfordshire. This reflection coincides precisely with the one-year anniversary of the Government's decision to cancel 14 planned smart motorway projects, a move driven by financial constraints and wavering public trust.

Williams highlighted the irony in the financial justification of these motorways, originally praised for their cost-effectiveness in increasing road capacity. Despite this, substantial public funds have been channelled into enhancing safety measures, such as the implementation of radar technology to identify vehicles in distress and the addition of more emergency areas.

The abolition of the hard shoulder in over 200 miles of motorway remains a contentious issue. Williams questions whether motorists will ever feel secure on these stretches, noting the relative safety of the hard shoulder compared to the risks of stopping in a live traffic lane.

The RAC proposes a rethink of the current all-lane-running motorways. Others suggest switching to dynamic smart motorways, which only utilise the hard shoulder during peak times, or restoring the hard shoulder entirely while retaining adaptive speed limits to manage traffic flow effectively.

The first all-lane-running segment on the M25 was introduced in April 2014, amidst safety concerns flagged by the Transport Committee in 2016. Despite these warnings, the network expanded until Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a halt to future developments in April 2024, followed by a formal statement to Parliament.

Recent data from National Highways indicates an expansion in all-lane-running motorways, with ongoing projects on the M6 and M56. Concurrently, RAC research reveals a significant portion of drivers advocating for the reinstatement of the hard shoulder, citing safety fears and admitting to avoiding the outermost lane due to potential hazards from stationary vehicles.

Simon Williams, RAC Head of Policy, said: "It's incredible to think that a decade has gone by since the first all-lane-running stretch of smart motorway opened on the M25 in Hertfordshire, and that it’s a year to the day since the Prime Minister cancelled all 14 future schemes, citing financial pressures and a lack of public confidence in them.

“There is a real irony when it comes to talking about cost pressures in relation to these distinctly unpopular types of motorway. While heralded as a cost-effective way of increasing capacity on some of our busier roads, a colossal amount of public money has since gone into trying to make them safer – for instance by installing radar-based technology to detect stricken vehicles more quickly, plus the creation of additional emergency refuge areas. This cash needn’t have been spent had the Government not taken the decision to plough on with building all-lane running motorways, regardless of concerns expressed by drivers, the RAC and even the Transport Committee.

“However, the ultimate question remains: will the motoring public ever be entirely comfortable driving on the 200-plus miles of motorway where the hard shoulder has been permanently removed? The hard shoulder is by no means a safe location, but in the event of a breakdown, it is far safer than being stranded in a live lane of traffic waiting for the ‘red X closed lane’ sign to be turned on and then for other drivers to do the right thing and move into another lane.

“We continue to believe that the Government should either convert existing all-lane-running smart motorways to ‘dynamic’ ones, where the hard shoulder is only opened to traffic during busy periods, or repaint the white line and reintroduce a permanent hard shoulder on these roads. In either case, queue-busting technology, such as variable speed limits, could remain to help ensure traffic flows as smoothly as possible.”


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