The UK motorway network is being ‘upgraded’ to become Smart motorways, however, is this new technology actually a stupid idea? There has been considerable discussion in the news and a halting of new development of the Smart motorway schemes until the issues have been resolved. But what is the issue with Smart motorways for motorists, and in particular for EV drivers.
Road capacity is a major issue, as the numbers of vehicles increases the delays on our roads and motorways gets worse, there are many solutions, one of which is to build additional lanes to take the additional capacity. Of course there are already ‘spare’ lanes available on most motorways in the form of hard shoulder’s.
Five years ago the UK government decided to embark on a plan to change the UK motorway network to become ‘smart’, meaning that the hard shoulder is removed to become a running lane and safety lay-bys placed every mile.
This decision has cost over £7 billion and sadly, the deaths of at least five people in accidents which have been caused due to the lack of a safety lane. Moreover breakdown organisations such as the AA have recently stated that they will refuse to recover broken down motorists from smart motorways.
This week, the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, announced the smart motorway project will be placed on hold until they have been proven to be safe. It is not clear what this will involve, as there are already twenty sections of Smart motorway on the M1, the M25, the M6, the M42 and the M4, there are six more under construction and another 18 are being planned.
I personally drove through almost thirty miles of roadworks over the weekend where considerable money and effort is being expended to develop the Smart infrastructure and I cannot see this will be reversed or that the existing sections will be reverted to standard motorways.
Why are Smart Motorways so Bad For EV’s
Edmund King, CEO of the AA has stated that Smart motorways could be ‘obsolete’ in the next ten years with the rise of electric vehicles and driving aids such as autopilot.
One of the most immediate issues is that many electric vehicles cannot be towed for long distances, some can only be towed for no more than 800 metres and others are advised to not be towed at all. Therefore, the ability to quickly recover a vehicle by towing it to the next service area or exit would not be possible, requiring pick up using a vehicle transporter, putting driver and recovery agent at considerable risk.
Mr King also stated there could be issues with autonomous driving where developers of vehicles recommend the vehicle pulls over to safe space if the driver falls asleep at the wheel. This would not be possible, or legal, on the new Smart motorway networks where safety refuges are only to be used in an emergency.
What to do if You Breakdown on a Smart Motorway?
Electric vehicles are considerably more reliable than petrol engine vehicles. Overall, there is a lot less to go wrong or seize up in an EV so the chances of finding yourself in a difficult position on a motorway, Smart or otherwise is considerably less than with other vehicles, however things can go wrong such as a blow out or similar.
The risks associated with Smart motorways are such that the vice-chairman of the Police Federation, Che Donald, has stated even a tyre puncture could be a life-or-death emergency, he recommends that anyone who breaks down on a Smart motorway should call 999 for immediate assistance.
You should try to get to one of the safety refuges at the side of the road, they are clearly marked and placed at least every 1.5 miles. However, if you have just suffered a blow-out for example, you may struggle and will need to carefully attempt to get to the side of the road.
Put your hazard warning lights on and move to the left-hand lane, if you can drive to a refuge then do so. The motorways are monitored using both CCTV and radar technology which should automatically slow down traffic and close lanes in an emergency, however even the fastest system will not be able to stop traffic moving at speed.
Are we Right to Think Smart Motorways Are Unsafe?
Personally, I do not feel safe on a Smart motorway. I realise that other drivers do not always follow the signs and speed limits (I know this as I cruise at 50 mph while others go past me considerably faster) and have often seen people driving in lanes marked as closed with a red cross.
Feedback by Government watchdog, Transport Focus stated 94% of drivers feel safe on motorways. Of course these figures cover all motorways, and I have to state that I feel safe on most of the network other than the Smart areas. In September 2019, Chief Highway Engineer Mike Wilson stated that the:
“comments in some media outlets about Smart motorways increasing risk by 216%. This is incorrect – Smart motorways were predicted to reduce safety risk compared to conventional motorways and evidence has demonstrated this prediction to be correct, with a reduced casualty rate for completed schemes of 28% against other motorways.”
Of course, just a few months later the project has been halted and the figures for deaths and injuries do not tally with the previously published figures. We need to make our own decisions, however it is clear a number of transport industry professionals agree with my gut instinct that these new road schemes do not offer a safe or comfortable driving experience.
What Can we do?
As drivers, we need to make our voices heard, particularly as we electric motorists represent the future of motoring. It may be that, in years to come, when all our vehicles communicate with each other, and can automatically avoid collisions that these roads will be totally safe, but we are some distance from this point.
If you drive on Smart motorways and have concerns, share your views on how could we make the systems safer?