When introduced on a trial basis around Birmingham, UK in 2006, smart motorways were supposed to be a quick, cheap, and supposedly safe response to public concerns surrounding congestion and traffic flow. They utilised a new form of all lane running in place of the more traditional hard shoulder, eliminating vacant lanes that were reserved for broken down vehicles. Variable speed limits controlled by computer communicated by digital signs, and scrupulous CCTV monitoring ensured these rules were followed. They sought to be an easier and less disruptive alternative to road widening demands from communities at the edge of traffic hotspots.
However, findings from a House of Commons transport select committee have brought their success and reliability into question, suggesting there is not enough safety or economic data to justify the continuation of the project. The government announced on 12 January 2022 a complete halt to the smart motorway conversion programme as a response to this, saying it would not continue until five years’ worth of safety data is available for review. Consequently, the validity and efficacy of smart motorways are in question, with clear focus now set on two distinct areas: the poor education of the general public and government short-sightedness over safety measures. With fatality rates rising (RATE), how have these shortcomings contributed to increasing safety concerns around smart motorways?
When the mass adoption of smart motorways was announced in the UK in 2014, new rules were put in place to ensure optimum operation. A few of these rules include acknowledging signals presented by overhead digital signs such as speed limit reductions, lane closures, etc., remaining in the vehicle in case of breakdown and use of emergency lanes in extreme cases only. When implemented, the government expected motorists to be able to follow new rules with ease.
However, Neil Greig, Director for Research and Policy for IAM RoadSmart, a charity known for championing greater awareness for road rules and driving skills, argues this assumption is wrong. A poll among IAM RoadSmart members in April 2021 identified a lack of education as the main cause of the problems on smart motorways. Greig argues that smart motorways shouldn’t have opened until fully appropriate safety measures were in place and the public was familiarised with the new rules. He urged the DfT to “listen to what smart motorway users are saying and to consider our findings, along with other in-depth research, to determine the best approach to developing the smart motorway network.”
Since 2014, limited information has been produced surrounding the appropriate etiquette and safety measures for smart motorway driving. Data released by the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) on fatalities between 2015 and 2018 shows that while smart motorway use only accounted for just under 11% of traffic on British motorways, they accounted for over 10% of fatalities across the whole network.
This startling statistic shows why at least 30% of drivers between 18 and 65, according to insurer GoCompare, are actively avoiding these parts of the motorway on long journeys. Attitudes have only become more hostile as longer parts of the motorway network have been overtaken by smart systems, now at 400 miles with an additional 300 mile stretch planned to be converted by 2025, according to vehicle recovery group the RAC. With such rapid and expansive increases, it means more communities have access to smart roads without the necessary knowledge or information to use them safely.
Addressing the Issues
Attempts to resolve safety concerns are ongoing. A report by the DfT in March 2020 sought to address problems raised by campaigners at the time who saw increasing problems with the new system. Implementing an 18-point action plan, the DfT hoped to mitigate the problems that had arisen from the shortcomings of the project so far. Among them, key measures included abolishing the dynamic hard shoulder, adding more cameras to catch drivers ignoring digital signs, increasing the speed of implementing traffic detection technology, retrofitting more emergency lanes on the M25 motorway around London, and adding more digital signs.
Jamil Ahmed is a Distinguished Engineer at Solace, a B2B technology advanced event broker company in Canada. He was clear however that more should be done to ensure the safety and efficiency of smart motorways for the future. Ahmed suggests that smart motorways should use data and traffic monitoring devices to judge and inform drivers about their journeys in good time. He argues that data should be provided by smart motorways in a preventative way to facilitate smoother and safer journeys while avoiding congestion. Just as a smartphone implies a level of intelligence, Ahmed explained, smart motorways set certain expectations for drivers. “For example, before leaving I should be able to be told that this is a good time to [go],” he said.
This attitude is shared by campaigners and has forced the government to consider proposals to rapidly upgrade traffic detection technology across the smart motorway network. Safety campaigners suggest that better quality sensors across a wider stretch of motorway could have the power to save more lives in the event of an accident. No more sharply was this brought to light than the death of Ms Nargis Begum after she broke down on the hard shoulder while it was being used as a running lane. The primary failure is deemed to be the traffic detection sensors which had not effectively alerted vehicles behind her to slow down. This is something Ahmed believes comes as a direct result of slow-to-react smart signs, not put up in enough time to warn drivers of the vehicle ahead.
He suggests that a combination of sensor technology and data sharing could provide satellite navigation systems with “actionable intel” and prove a better approach to informing drivers about upcoming traffic. The next stage of improving both cars and smart motorways could be to integrate these approaches to data analysis into vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communication systems. This technology allows V2X-capable vehicles and devices to interact and share details such as their velocity and direction of travel. However, as most people have access to a smartphone that can display similar data, through apps like Google maps, where could the impact of enhanced V2X be felt most?
“Cars can do a great deal. If you give people data to act on, they will make smart choices,” Ahmed said. He argues that cars must proactively alert drivers to oncoming obstacles. This might be through continuously notifying the driver to force their attention on the hazard and act appropriately. “We don’t need to have the car brake but just being a nuisance could be enough,” he explained. Using V2X technology to influence driver habits could help increase understandings of how to use smart motorways while simultaneously increasing safety for drivers.
The DfT had recently attempted to mitigate safety concerns. One prominent example from Highways England has been the call to drivers: ‘Don’t ignore the red X’. The campaign is designed to bring awareness around the different types of signs placed over smart motorways and what they mean. It comes ahead of more cameras being placed along greater stretches of the smart motorway network to catch infringements on using closed motorway lanes. However, as Ahmed rightly points out, “the challenge is that you have generations of drivers on the road, from the elderly that passed their licence 50 years and to the teenager who just passed their test today.” Adapting how drivers can readjust to different driving rule remains an important part of the situation the government still needs to address.
Whatever the current approach, it has done little to address other issues campaigners are calling for more action on, such as the hard shoulder lane or more emergency lanes across the network. The effect of the five-year data collection remains to be seen, but the government will need to ensure concerns on safety measures are addressed if more causalities are to be avoided.