Highways England insist smart motorways are safe, but pressure against them is peaking.

As of January 2020, smart motorways accounted for around 17% of the motorway network in the United Kingdom. Today, 400 miles of smart motorways already exist, with an additional 300 miles penned for completion by 2025. So if you’ve yet to find yourself driving on one, you’ve almost certainly heard of the concept.

The smart motorway, defined

Nonetheless, let’s cycle back for a second. Smart motorways, previously known as managed motorways, were first introduced in 2006 and are, in theory, hard to dislike. They promise more efficient, safer and environmentally kind motorways. They also proport to save substantial sums for the Treasury, by increasing motorway capacity without the need for additional infrastructure work – like building extra lanes. They do this by employing traffic management methods which, for example, utilise the hard shoulder and variable speed limits to increase capacity and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas. So far, so good.

The good, the bad and the potentially ugly

However, our lived experience of smart motorways has so far been mixed, to put it mildly. On the one hand Highways England analysed data from the very first smart motorway, the M42, to argue that not only did journey reliability improve by 22%, but personal injury accident rates were reduced by more than half. They also argue that smart motorways aren’t so much flawed as misunderstood – which greater public awareness and practical improvements to the system can address over time. This attitude was typified by the government’s release of an 18-step improvement plan for smart motorways back in March 2020.

Despite this, in early 2020 the Chairman of the Police Federation, John Apter, labelled smart motorways as ‘death traps’ and ‘anything but smart’. More recently, and in response to the death of a 22 year old man on the M1 in South Yorkshire, a coroner concluded that while reckless driving was the primary cause of death, the lack of a hard shoulder was a contributing factor. He simultaneously referred Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service over the incident.

Smart motorways: do they have a future?

How this plays out for the nation’s roads remains to be seen, but with pressure continuing to build, the government has just announced a further review into smart motorways – to be led by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) – amid plummeting public confidence.

At least as it stands, smart motorways are struggling to live up to their name. Only time will tell if they continue to remain a fixture on the nation’s roads.