How Britain got smart motorways so wrong

·7-min read
So far, smart motorways appear decidedly dumb
So far, smart motorways appear decidedly dumb

Sixteen years ago, a bizarre experiment was unleashed on the unsuspecting motoring public. Drivers on a 10-mile stretch of the M42, just east of Birmingham, might have wondered why, overnight, the hard shoulder had been turned into a fourth lane.

They probably tentatively edged into that inside lane, glancing up at the shiny new gantries relaying four sparkling LED signs over each carriageway, showing a new 50mph speed limit. They may have even wondered what the peculiar bays spaced every third of a mile with an emergency phone were for.

Those motorists travelling between junctions 3A and 7 were the first to experience ATM, or “Active Traffic Management”.

Inspired by trials in the Netherlands and Germany, the newfangled scheme launched in 2006 allowed engineers monitoring CCTV of the roads to impose variable speed limits, close lanes with red “X” signs, and even warn drivers when dogs strayed on to carriageways.

A few years later, the name “smart motorway” was coined, and successive governments pumped around £6 billion to “upgrade” traditional motorways with hard shoulders to four-lane routes where technology was believed to be the panacea for all motoring ills.

Yesterday, smart motorways appeared decidedly dumb. In what many heralded as a victory for commonsense, Grant Shapps applied the brakes to the rollout as he issued a moratorium to establish just how smart – and, more importantly, safe – they are. The jury could be out until 2025 while five years of data is gathered and assessed.

If the sorry saga had not been so costly – both in lives and money – it would appear almost farcical.

To understand how we got here, we need to understand the challenge every transport secretary has tried to grapple with: how to reduce motorway congestion, increasing capacity while improving safety. And they must not break the bank in the process.

It was for that reason that engineers began looking to Europe to see how our increasing reliance on cars was being managed through technology. It is little wonder the Highways Agency’s insistence back in 2007 that it had solved the apparently impossible challenge was greeted with such glee. The agency (later rebranded as Highways England, then National Highways) had crunched the data from its M42 experiment.

Despite the 50mph speed limit, they said there was a reduction in journey times due to that new fourth lane. The scheme was, it also appeared, good for the planet, with a recorded drop in pollution around the M42, in part because fuel consumption was apparently down 4 per cent, with vehicle emission down 10 per cent. Better still, the average accident rate fell from 5.2 per month to 1.5.

Engineers boasted that technology – the CCTV peering at the thousands of miles of Tarmac, sensors apparently capable of detecting congestion and flash new signs – was the way forward.

Ruth Kelly, then the Labour transport secretary, hailed the results as “really impressive”, because motorists get from “their front door to their place of work” quicker.

At the time, dissenting voices were in a minority. The Royal Society for the Protection of Accidents, for example, did not join the welcoming party. It wondered whether emergency services would struggle to reach crash scenes without a hard shoulder, before pondering: “When someone breaks down, they may not be able to get their vehicle out of the running lane.” The AA also dared to say that the experiment had not been “tested by a major incident”.

With the benefit of hindsight, those voices now seem sadly prophetic. Despite the jury being out on the fate of these motorways, in the court of public opinion the tragic catalogue of deaths suggests a guilty verdict has already been reached.

For more than two years, The Daily Telegraph has uncovered the stories of drivers or their passengers being killed after the vehicle they were in broke down on a live lane that used to be a hard shoulder.

Claire Mercer is now accustomed to being called a “smart motorways widow”. In 2019, her husband, Jason, 44, was involved in a minor prang with a van driven by Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, on the M1 in Yorkshire.

Mrs Mercer, 45, remains convinced her husband, like many others, was oblivious about smart motorways (there had been no public information TV campaign). So he was unaware that he should have driven on to an emergency refuge area (ERA), instead of swapping details while tucked in tight to a barrier where the hard shoulder used to be.

Within moments, a lorry travelling at 56mph failed to swerve out of the way, killing both men instantly. Mrs Mercer, herself a former engineer, has now forged links with people across the country who have lost loved ones after their cars broke down on smart motorways. “As a former engineer, I know that if there is a safety issue with a part or system, it is isolated and removed until it is made safe,” she said. “Not every car will reach an emergency refuge area.”

Claire Mercer is accustomed to being dubbed a “smart motorways widow” - Charlotte Graham
Claire Mercer is accustomed to being dubbed a “smart motorways widow” - Charlotte Graham

Sir Mike Penning, the coalition government’s roads minister, signed off a £2 billion smart motorways project in 2013, but has always insisted he was unaware Highways England would fit those emergency areas 1.5 miles apart, instead of every third of a mile, as in the M42 trial. Last year, the smart motorway death toll reached 38.

Meera Naran called for a review after her eight-year-old son, Dev, was killed in 2018 on a “dynamic” stretch of the M6 where the hard shoulder can be turned on and off. Just months earlier, Jamil Ahmed, 36, died in near similar circumstances at the same spot, prompting his wife, Badra, to forewarn of yet another tragedy.

It is thought that motorists may have been confused about when the hard shoulder was open or closed to them. Public awareness about the transformation of our road network has been low, with many motorists only learning about the different types of smart motorways through media coverage of those who have died.

However, Mrs Mercer’s high-profile campaigning about the dangers of smart motorways encouraged National Highways to launch its first television advertisement last year, at a cost of £5 million, which urged people to pull in and get over the barrier if their car fails to reach a refuge area. This was accused of being in bad taste as the commercial featured two fly-characters squashed against windscreen, singing “Go left!” to the Pet Shop Boys hit.

Mrs Mercer even decided to publish advice in foreign languages after realising lorry drivers, often from Eastern Europe, were involved in a number of crashes because they may not have known they could encounter stranded vehicles.

In the years since the 2006 trial, the technology used on smart motorways has repeatedly been found wanting. Documents obtained through Freedom of Information laws by this newspaper showed that the road signalling systems meant to close lanes with a red “X” have been stricken by bugs. A National Highways whistleblower revealed one piece of software had been nicknamed “Die Now” because it became unusable three times in four days, disabling signals covering huge swathes of the M1, M4, M5 and M63.

One inquest into a smart motorway accident heard that no single National Highways controller was responsible for the banks of monitors used to spot stranded vehicles – and that as many as one in every 10 CCTV cameras were not working properly.

Four coroners investigating “live lanes” deaths have now warned that removing hard shoulders could lead to more deaths.

While smart motorways are statistically safer than A-roads – the UK has one of the lowest fatality rates on its roads – the reason why we ever adopted European “high-tech” trial schemes remains unclear. A recent report on smart motorways by Royal HaskoningDHV, an engineering consultancy, struggled to find collision statistics from Germany or the Netherlands that proved their motorways were safer.

Some have speculated that the technology could be made to work – or not – with the impending rollout of driverless cars. Others have pondered whether our increasing reliance on electric cars means those overhead gantries could be used to help the Treasury recover the revenue lost from the falling petrol sales by charging a mileage tax.

For those who have lost loved ones, their only hope is that smart motorways will be smart enough to be as safe as possible.

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