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In 2016, the United Kingdom had over 1800 casualties and 24000 injuries in traffic-related accidents. Congestion on major road networks and motorways costs about £2 billion a year, with 25 percent of those costs resulting from accidents. In an effort to improve traffic flow and mitigate the number of accidents, Highways England launched a £205 million operation in 2016, adding over 240 miles of extra capacity through smart motorways. Routes like the M1 and parts of the M4, M5, and M6 are currently, or have already been converted into smart motorways. A stretch of road on the M1 between junctions 23A for East Midlands Airport, and junction 25 for the A52 for Derby and Nottingham, have been under construction as well, and are some of the busiest motorways in the country.

The results seem to be paying off, as police in Derbyshire say they’ve been called to fewer crashes on the nearby stretch of the M1 since this section of the route became a smart motorway, with the hard shoulder becoming a fourth lane. According to figures obtained by the Freedom of Information Act, Derbyshire Constabulary officers were called to 124 collisions between junction 28 at Alfreton and junction 31 at Aston near Sheffield in the year before the smart motorway was introduced. One year after the smart technology was installed, police attended only 52 stretches on the same stretch—a 58.1 percent reduction. The latest figures show that between the end of March 2017 and January, officers have been called to just 20 collisions on that stretch of roadway.

Smart motorways utilize their technologies to monitor congestion levels and change speed limits when necessary to smooth traffic flow, which helps reduce frustrating trends that form in vehicular congestion like stop-and-go driving and improve journey times. Some of the other pioneering technologies smart motorways use to manage traffic at peak hours include activating warning signs to alert drivers of traffic jams or oncoming hazards, and lane closures for instances like allowing emergency vehicles to reach their destinations quicker. These motorways involve using the hard shoulder for traffic unless a red “X” sign indicates otherwise, which is usually due to an accident or immobilized vehicle. Overhead signs control these motorway lanes, and are coordinated by highway staff in a control room.

While the numbers show encouraging improvement among declining incident numbers along these stretches of roadway, driver opinions of this technology show the public has a different attitude. One AA poll from the Derbyshire Times reported that eight out of 10 drivers think the removal of hard shoulders on smart motorways make these routes more dangerous.

As of last March, there will even be harsher penalties for drivers found using lanes with a red “X” sign over them, in an effort to further increase safety. Highways England Chief Executive Jim O’Sullivan also noted how evidence demonstrates that smart motorways deliver comparable levels of safety to traditional motorways.

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