Have smart motorways helped to improve road safety and reduce traffic, and what are the rules when travelling?
Since the UK’s major motorways were first constructed, the amount of traffic they accommodate each and every day has risen exponentially.
Government figures show that over the last 20 years alone, motorway traffic has increased by 44 per cent, with the number of vehicles rising by a third in the same time period.
The dramatic increase has placed a significant amount of stress on the road network, which has only increased by 6,000 miles in the past two decades despite 318.5 billion miles being travelled in the year to March 2016.
Van traffic alone is growing more quickly than any other vehicle type, rising 4.2 per cent from 2014 levels and set to continue increasing in the years ahead.
With limited room for expansion and the process of creating a new road network far more difficult in 2016 than 50 years ago for this very reason, new ways of using existing routes have been explored to help ease traffic flow and the associated problems caused by such a high volume of vehicles using motorways.
Chief among these has been the introduction of smart motorways, which has comprised a series of upgrades to particularly busy stretches of roads to help manage safety and traffic flow.
Since the first trial on a stretch of the M42 in 2006, several major routes have been upgraded to smart motorways as part of a multi-billion pound investment, most notably on various parts of the M1, and between Junctions 25 and 30 on the notoriously busy M62.
By 2021, 14 UK motorways will have been upgraded to smart status at a cost of £1.5 billion as part of Highways England’s £15 billion investment in the road network.
However, the effectiveness of the schemes is still being debated, with some groups claiming it will ultimately help to reduce commuter and fleet costs considerably, as well as boosting safety, and others arguing that the potential ROI is questionable and that CO2 emissions are unaffected.
For many motorists, there remains uncertainty about exactly how to use smart motorways and which restrictions apply at which times, with a failure to fully understand this potentially having a detrimental effect on traffic flow, contrary to the intended purpose.
The Department for Transport has extensive advice on how to use smart motorways, although there are some key points that all drivers need to be aware of.
Chief to understanding the rules that are in effect is closely monitoring the overhead gantries that appear every few hundred metres and provide instructions on which lanes drivers are able to use and which specific speed or usage restrictions apply.
Whenever a speed limit on a red circle is displayed on the gantry, this automatically becomes a legally enforceable limit, with speed cameras in operation at all times.
However, what many motorists do not realise is that the cameras on smart motorway gantries remain in operation even when lowered speed limits are not being enforced.
This means that many motorists traveling at more than 70mph in free-flowing conditions are at risk of being caught and fined for the offence, the Association of Chief Police Officers notes.
Despite only four per cent of vehicular accidents occurring on motorways, the speed at which cars, vans, motorbikes and lorries are travelling often means the propensity for severe injury is greater, and so one of the key aims of the smart motorway rollout is to boost the safety of road users.
Whereas in the past it may have been difficult to know if an accident had occurred up ahead, smart motorways will advise drivers of an accident well in advance and generally accompany this with a gradual reduction in the speed limit to avoid sudden breaking.
When combined with in-vehicle technology such as traffic monitoring and sat-nav features, it gives drivers the best possible chance of avoiding accident-related traffic or being caught in the knock-on effects.
Additionally, a red X will be displayed above any lane where there is an obstruction – due to an accident, breakdown, maintenance or otherwise – to warn drivers not to use it.
This now extends to hard shoulders, which – due to road widening activity – have expanded the capacity of many stretches of motorway by 25 per cent by enabling vehicles to use all four lanes during heavy traffic.
On the one hand, this means that traffic can smoothly filter off at junctions and the need to change lanes is reduced, although for vehicles that break down it can also eliminate the possibility of stopping on the hard shoulder.
In these circumstances, it is important to use designated refuge areas, where possible, and switch on hazard lights until help arrives.
According to the AA, the safety benefits of smart motorways are already being seen across the UK, with the likelihood of collisions being substantially reduced in areas where the approach has been rolled out.
It is estimated that the introduction of smart motorways and associated active traffic management will ultimately help the UK to cope with the ever-increasing amount of vehicles on the roads and provide tangible personal and business benefits through reduced journey times and fuel savings.
Only time will tell whether these benefits will all come to fruition, but with £1.5 billion earmarked to convert existing roads by 2021, motorists who are aware of the rules around smart motorways can help to maximise the chances of a smooth and safe journey.
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