/ Motoring

Are smart motorways a smart move?

Smart motorway, credit Highways Agency

Sometime soon a motorway near you could lose its hard shoulder for a large part of the day. Are smart motorways, with flexible hard shoulders, the answer to congestion?

The Highways Agency is introducing ‘smart’ motorways to help reduce congestion and improve journey times by temporarily opening up the hard shoulder to traffic during busy periods.

As someone who travels around 20,000 miles a year, and spends many hours stuck in motorway jams, I appreciate the goal to speed up traffic flow. And I can see the benefits in saving time for businesses. But, for anyone whose car breaks down, could it put them in greater danger?

Breaking down on the motorway

The statistics vary, with some claiming 1,500 deaths a year on hard shoulders, and others showing that overall (with the volume of traffic taken into account) motorways are safer than smaller roads. But all seem to agree that multiple vehicle pile ups are most common on motorways, and that accidents involving cars on the hard shoulder are more likely to be fatal.

All this leaves me in no doubt that the motorway hard shoulder is already a dangerous – and frightening – place to breakdown. Is removing it really a smart move?

Smart motorways and safety

It’s good to hear that smart motorways will be constantly monitored, so help should arrive quickly. However, many are still concerned about the safety implications, with GEM Motoring Assist’s David Williams saying:

‘Unfortunately, when the system is in operation, a vehicle breaking down no longer has an immediate traffic-free area in which to stop.

‘Ideally the driver will be able to reach one of the many refuge areas built into the system at frequent intervals. However, this is not always possible and if unlucky, a driver may find it necessary to stop in the middle of the traffic flow which is likely to be unnerving for even an experienced driver.’

Do you think smart motorways are smart thinking?


First, I believe the statistic quoted should be 1500 killed and inlured, not killed – and this is over all motorways. Not all motorways – or sections – will be subject to hard shoulder running, and those that are will be during times of congestion (which for some may be for long periods). Trials on the M42 seem to have been successful – they use comprehensive monitoring – and avoid the need to widen motorways and their bridges. They appear to make good use of a hard shoulder that is little used. My concerns would be access for emergency services during a major incident – how do you clear a path? However, this is no different to many trunk roads which are more accident prone than motorways.
In my view it is worth a more extended trial, coupled with variable speed limits that seem to have been successful elsewhere.

Chris says:
6 February 2015

The problem is the (un)smart motorways being implemented are very different to the active traffic management that was introduced on the M42 as the initial trial. On that hard shoulder running was only during busy periods, with mandatory lower speed limts, full scale gantries very few hundres yards enabling the hard shoulder to be closed again if there was any incident, and laybys every 1/4 of a mile so you’d be unlucky to break down and not make it to the next layby.

With the new schemes as a cost saving measure the hard shoulder is open 24/7 so you can use it at NSL, laybys are only every 2km (1.6 miles) so you’ve every chance of breaking down and being stranded in a live running lane, few gantries enabling it to be closed. At night the chances of being hurtled into the back by an HGV are almost inevitable if you break down.


On a crowded motorway it will probably be impossible to pull out if a stationary vehicle blocks the carriageway. The result will be a dead stop from motorway speeds when a breakdown is spotted. Tyre shreds and other obstacles tend to get deposited on the hard shoulder, and remain there until removed. These lanes are designed as a safety measure and removing them lessens that safety factor and certainly makes a breakdown more hazardous for the unfortunate occupants. These hard shoulders are just as necessary now as they were, if not more so with the increase in traffic. I would like to understand the thinking behind this move a little more before accepting the benefits of the extra lane. Murphy’s law says that traffic fills the space available to it and we would have four lanes of congestion instead of three.

Adam says:
17 January 2014

As malcolm r points out above, sections of motorway with hard-shoulder running are closely monitored. Presumably it would be a simple matter to temporarily reduce the speed limit and, if appropriate, close a lane in the event of a breakdown. Plus, if a motorway is so congested that it benefits from hard-shoulder running it really should have a speed limit somewhat lower than 70mph anyway (raod capacity increases at lower speeds).

Tyre shreds, etc. currently end up on the hard shoulder because there is no traffic there. If the hard shoulder were in regular use shreds would be thrown completely clear of the motorway.

Hard shoulders are indeed a safety margin, but we need to ask ourselves if they are (and have always been) unnecessarily generous. A lay-by every few hundred metres might well be adequate.

You’re dead right about Murphy’s Law. Fundamentally, it’s because people are concerned with travel time not distance, so improving the road network simply increases the ‘catchment area’ of a workplace or home. Arguably, this is a good thing.

My view? Let’s cautiously introduce hard shoulder running and learn.


Motorway pile-ups may not be common but there is no point in risking more accidents. Let’s keep our hard shoulders.


Congestion could be reduced by staggering working hours and scheduling some freight movements perhaps. As for trains. I wonder when gridlock will become so bad that something radical will be seen as necessary?
I have thought of another solution. A typical small car these days – say Vauxhall Astra – is around 6′ / 1814mm wide. On olden days an Austin 7 was 4′ 3″ wide (1300mm). So if we made narrower cars – as then – we could get more lanes on the same road.


Congestion is a huge problem which no government has cared to address its causes and impact on road users. I have to travel to work where there is no alternative and affordable public transport .
My journey to work which used to take 45 minutes in 2004, now takes more than two hours and is getting worse by the day. If there are as many cars on the road at times of recession, then god helps us when the economy starts to improve.

What we need is an honest population policy to address all the relevant issues, including transport, housing, education and healthcare. Using the hard shoulder on motorways is a backward step, and adds to nothing more than papering over the cracks of a building that is about to collapse!


I feel strongly that many of our problems in the UK are due to rising population. Obviously dealing with this will not sort out the problem of congested motorways any time soon, but we need to start talking about how to deal with the problem in the longer term.