Ask most people in Manchester what they think of the M60’s new ‘smart’ status and you’d probably get a barrage of complaints about it. The UK’s controversial smart motorways have come under renewed criticism amid safety concerns following a notable increase in the number of near misses and fatal accidents.
An investigation by BBC Panorama found on one of the two converted sections of the M25, there has been almost 1,500 near misses since the scheme was introduced. The preceding five years saw just 72 near misses.
London and the south east aren’t the only regions to experience a bumpy transition to smart motorways. Here in Greater Manchester, we have experienced our fair share of construction delays, drawing the ire of many who live and work in the region.
The M62 already has smart motorways in operation between Junction 18 and Junction 20 at Rochdale, a five-mile stretch that was completed in 2018. However, preliminary work has been undertaken between Junctions 20 and 25 with principal construction due to start later this year.
However, a recent government review seems to have put the brakes on the proposed smart motorway. The project is expected to cost between £283 million and £392.3 million, however as of May 2020, there is no completion date in sight.
With smart motorway construction affecting all of us here in Greater Manchester, it’s important to understand what they’re all about.
Why are Smart Motorways So Controversial?
Highways England who operate, maintain, and improve all motorways and major roads in England, insist that smart motorways are safer than the current motorway infrastructure. They point to statistics, including journey reliability being improved by 22% and accident personal injuries have been reduced by 50% as evidence of this. Yet despite these favourable statistics, the rise in accident near misses is alarming.
Smart Motorways are controversial and there are several reasons why. Here’s a look at just a few of the reasons why the widespread adoption of smart motorways has been met with consumer caution.
It can be argued that motorists perhaps aren’t used to driving on smart motorways and this may have contributed to the rise in accidents. However, any motorist with the experience to drive on the motorway should be able to adapt to any new infrastructure quite seamlessly.
Despite introducing measures to calm traffic congestion at peak times, such as variable speed limits and the additional lane that was formerly the hard shoulder, many motorists across Greater Manchester are not convinced of the merits of smart motorways, even those with decades of experience.
Breakdowns are a little complicated
Unlike the traditional motorway infrastructure, smart motorways do not have a hazard line for use in the event of a breakdown or accident, but a layby called an Emergency Refuge Area or ERA. These laybys are stationed every mile and a half, are marked by large blue sign, and have an orange SOS stop. They were planned for Greater Manchester’s motorways, before the brakes were pulled on all future construction.
Should motorists be involved in an accident they have been advised by the RAC to get to the nearest ERA, leaving your car with its hazard lights on. Once there, all passengers should exit the vehicle through the passenger door and stand behind the crash barrier.
There a several problems with this. First, without the hard shoulder, people are perilously close to fast moving traffic. There’s also the issue that your nearest ERA could be almost a mile-and-a-half from the scene of your accident or where your car broke down. This means that for people to get help, they may find themselves walking for 45-minutes or more just to reach the ERA. And, then there’s the issue of leaving your car at the scene of an accident or breakdown.
Variable speed limits
Another contentious issue with smart motorways is the variable speed limits. Opponents to smart motorways in Greater Manchester – or anywhere in the UK – believe that without clear indication of the variable speed limits, motorists will consistently be caught speeding without knowing that they are breaking the law.
This worry is compounded by the increase in speed cameras on the motorways. The chances of getting caught speeding even when travelling at seventy miles an hour through a fifty zone that isn’t clearly marked are exponentially higher. With speeding sentencing structures becoming increasingly severe (offenders could be fined as much as £2,500 for speeding offences), it seems unfair that speed limit zones may not be as clearly marked as they could be.
Vehicle detection systems
As noted by both the AA and the investigation by BBC Panorama, the lauded estimates of any safety improvements of smart motorways in Greater Manchester and throughout the UK is reliant on vehicle detection systems being installed and functioning properly.
Arguably, the biggest problem the All Party Parliamentary Groups have cited with smart motorways is that, despite Highways England promising a swift roll out of the initial 400-mile network, just 25 miles are responsive to vehicle detection systems.
Moreover, data has suggested that on those roads without an automotive vehicle detection system, it takes an average of 17 minutes for a vehicle to be recovered. Most damaging of all, BBC Panorama discovered that one detection camera was broken and left unattended to for nearly 12-months – yet further evidence that the infrastructure for smart motorways is yet not in place.
It’s clear that there’s much progression needed for smart motorways in Greater Manchester – and indeed throughout the UK – to become efficient enough to replace the existing motorway infrastructure.
However, what shouldn’t be underestimated is our ingenuity and determination. Smart motorways may not change our driving experience in the coming months, but they likely will at the very latest by the end of the decade.