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Everything you need to know about smart motorways

BBC Panorama recently revealed that 38 people have been killed on smart motorways in the last five years. While the results of their study have prompted a review into safety, we look at everything you need to know about smart motorways.

What are smart motorways?

Currently, smart motorways cover more than 400 miles of roads in England. There are three different types to be aware of;
  • Controlled – motorists cannot drive on the hard shoulder
  • Dynamic hard shoulder – it’s possible for the hard shoulder to be opened
  • ALR (all lanes running) – the lane is now permanently used as a live driving lane, rather than a hard shoulder
The idea behind smart motorways is that they are reactive to suit live traffic needs. For example, extra lanes are added to help control congestion, or speed limits are changed to improve traffic flow and journey times. They are also used as a way of alerting drivers of hazards ahead, as well as potential wait times.
Yet according to a former government minister, the infrastructure of these road networks endanger the lives of road users. A shocking example to come from the study involved part of the M25 in Greater London where the hard shoulder was removed in 2014 in favour of an extra driving lane. Since then, there have been 1,485 ‘near misses’, in comparison to just 72 incidents during the five years leading up to the new layout. These near misses were defined as incidents “with the potential to cause injury or ill health.”

Smart motorways

What to do if you break down on a smart motorway

The advice from Highways England is to get off the motorway immediately if you encounter a problem with your car. If the hard shoulder has been removed completely or is being used as a live driving lane, motorists are urged to head to an emergency area. These areas are identifiable by a blue sign with an orange SOS phone symbol and are regularly spaced at the side of the carriageway on smart motorways. However, the RAC found that around 72% of drivers in England are worried about not being able to reach an emergency area during a breakdown.

More worryingly, a poll conducted by the AA revealed that just 9% of drivers felt relaxed or safe when using a smart motorway. Therefore the AA, as well as other motoring organisations, are calling for these roads to be made much safer or scrapped altogether.

If drivers find themselves broken down while in a live lane, and unable to get to an SOS area, the advice is to switch on hazards lights and contact 999 immediately. If the vehicle is close to the left-hand verge or safety barrier, drivers and passengers are also advised to get out of the vehicle and wait in a safe place until help arrives.

Latest stats reveal that stranded motorists endure an average wait time of 17 minutes to be spotted on the motorway, and another 17 minutes until some form of rescue arrives.

What action is being taken to reduce the number of accidents linked with smart motorways?

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told BBC Panorama he wants to fix smart motorways because they are too confusing for drivers. He has placed a hold on the national rollout of such roads until the government are able to complete a review. While the build of new smart motorways will cease until the review is completed, those already up and running will remain open. Motorists are urged to take extra care on journeys.

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