/ 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.

. . . or perhaps we just need to redistribute the population to reduce congestion by relocating workplaces . Perhaps this might happen in an uncontrolled way by natural processes – the cost of housing in London & the south east will become prohibitive, road and public transport congestion will become unmanageable, and the quality of life so will become so unappealing that the slow drift to the provinces will gather pace; unfortunately, at the moment, all that is doing is extending the journey without relieving congestion. Instead of solving the problem, smart motorways might only prolong the agony.

This is a problem in every developed and developing country, I imagine. Getting people to live nearer where they work (or work nearer where they live), and persuading them to travel at different times, are a couple of obvious ways of dealing with it. Putting on artificial cost penalties is unfair on those who must travel. However, as costs rise naturally, common sense will help some to trade salaries for lower living costs. Commuting for many far outweighs gas and electricity costs – about which we get so exercised – and matches annual food costs. I suspect those on lower wages have already made this choice out of necessity.
Populations grow, and our open borders lead to an influx to what many see as an attractive country. I wonder why – don’t they see other European countries as equally nice? We can always, of course, go in the opposite direction. I’d be interested to hear ethical schemes for controlling our population – perhaps through reducing an over-generous welfare system? Maybe it is time welfare for immigrants was funded by the EU to all its members instead of nationally?

I would have thought the first step in improving road flow would be to enforce the recent middle lane hogging law from August 2013.

I still see far too many people not moving over when there’s nothing to overtake. Resulting in clogging up lanes.

Motorways were created as fast road links connecting big towns and cities. With so many junctions added over the years, and with the growth of car using population they are increasingly used, inappropriately, to accommodate the overflow of local traffic.

I live in a town where a massive housing development is taking place, with thousands of new homes being built but without a single inch of new road outside the estate!

Building regulations have traditionally paid little consideration to the traffic generated by new housing, and the recent relaxation of these regulations is set to make matters even worse.

I do not believe that policing the use of the middle lane would affect the fundamental problem of having far too many vehicles on our limited stock of narrow roads.

Apart from London and South East public transport is very poor and many drivers cannot help feeling that they are being punished by opening the door to an unlimited number of additional drivers and vehicles, competing for the shrinking spaces on our already congested roads.

Adam says:
17 January 2014

The impact of new housing on roads is covered by planning not building regulations. So it is entirely under the control of the Local Authority. However, given the chronic housing shortage in the UK, I suspect proposals to give people a roof over their head will be seen as somewhat more important than traffic congestion!

A dramatic improvement in public transport (cost, convenience, availability, comfort, etc) looks to be the best answer.

I believe the pressure of traffic growth is caused more by sub-division of households, longevity, and rising affordability of personal transport [adding capacity, frequency and journey length] than by population migration, although that must play a part. There is statistically a sufficiency of housing – it’s just not where people want it, and nothing much is being done to bring about a more rational distribution. It will take a long time before economic forces alone will make much difference; meanwhile we will carry on spending vast sums on highway enlargements and new railway lines.

Martin says:
17 January 2014

There are of course some ‘motorways’ without a hard shoulder: M90 and M50.

Managing motorway space is of course a cheaper option than making bigger motorways. Having driven in the US I am not comfortable with big motorways particularly when crowded.

The problem with these discussions is nobody considers cost. Yes a clear hard shoulder may be safer – but to what degree – but are you prepared to pay a bit more for it? – in tax or toll. The answer lies in the example of the M6 toll.

I have used American toll roads in the past and they were much cheaper than ours. Used the M6 Toll too and it was a great relief compared to the M6, but feel it is rather over-priced.

There may be some solution in pricing all roads to all users, but then it would be unfair to keep our steep petrol duty and road taxes on top of he tolls!

Forcing all drivers to use smaller and lighter cars may also help in the short term. Cars are getting bigger and heavier and you only need to look at the space some of these cars occupy in car parks to see the difference this would make on the road!

In the long term, to keep the roads moving and to preserve our health and the planet, I believe there is no alternative to population control!

Brian says:
17 January 2014


I agree wholeheartedly with you on cost.

Another problem is that we cannot just keep covering Britain with more and more concrete and asphalt. All we’re doing is trading one unpleasant fact of life for another, it makes no sense at all.

Making use of the hard shoulders gives us a lot of extra road space at the environmental cost of a few lay-bys.

I am not keen on enlarging motorways, but what happens when vehicles break down or a driver becomes ill when driving and there is no hard shoulder?

It would be interesting to have some facts about breakdowns and illness – just how many would prevent the driver reaching a refuge (proposed at 800m intervals, so an average travel of 400m)? Regarding breakdowns and illness with no hard shoulder, this is just the situation that pertains on most of our trunk roads – whether dual or single carriageway. We seem to take that in our stride with far less of the traffic monitoring proposed for those sections of motorways affected. If we cannot reduce traffic volume then a way of using our roads more efficiently without excessive cost is surely worth trying?

Smart motorways are already with us, to some extent, so it would also be useful to have figures for breakdowns etc. and to see how they compare with motorways with hard shoulders with regard to accidents.

One problem with speed limit restrictions on motorways, whether for maintenance work or variable speed limits, is that few pay any attention unless done in conjunction with speed cameras.

The need for a hard shoulder would be reduced when you can park your vehicle on the roadside in case of emergency, without risking being hit by a 40 ton truck with a sleepy driver.

You may argue that reducing the speed limit on motorways would help but how far would you go to minimise the risk of this happening and the impact of such collision?

Barry Keating says:
20 January 2014

I believe that this is the result of 14 years of under investment in the infrastructure and the fear of introducing toll roads in busy areas and that there is now meaningfull data to suggest that it will be safe. It will be unsafe and will definitely make it impossible for emergency vehicle to obtain fast access to these road some sections. Consider the M25 when there are severe hold ups. Continental truck drivers who are tired, or out of hours just pull over to the hard shoulder and create additional congestion. Road planners need to learn from other countries which have more efficient “motorway” systems. Feeder roads are needed in areas where local commuters are only likely to travel short distances and access to major roads should be restricted (by use of toll or reduced number of ramps) to stop people jumping onto a motorways for just for a mile or two.

Sparky-rik says:
7 February 2015

How many deaths on the network is acceptable, surely the answer is 0. So why is the HA making the move to motorways that have no safely zone for emergency user for breakdowns, sudden onset of I’ll health etc. This can only increase the risk of fatal accidents. I would like the HA to advise what they consider an acceptable death rate is for some sort lived confession relief? I drive 40k miles a year, mostly on motorways and have had to use the hardshoulder a few times, and as a non running late it felt a little nerving, but if it had live 70mph traffic hurtling towards me I really would feel at risk. I think this is a really bad idea.
With regard to it being closely monitored, well that relies on someone watching the cctv closely but we all know that requires human attention, which will fail at times through boredom etc.

Harcourt says:
10 August 2015

Everytime I drive along the motorway I think, with fear, what will happen when the hard shoulder disappears to create a new Lane. What happens if I, or anyone, breaks down before they can reach the “refugee area”? What chance is there that every vehicle thats gets a problem is going to be able to reach these areas? When a car or lorry stops, it stops – in Lane 1 which was the hard shoulder. Bang – whoever was driving behind you smashes straight into the rear of your vehicle because you could not pull over onto the hard shoulder. Its an accident waiting to happen and even worse, how many will die. Get a puncture and how do you change an offside tyre on a busy Lane, when you cant reach the refugee area. Have I got something wrong or did some rather stupid come up with this scheme.