The government has recently announced an overhaul of Britain's smart motorway network, which has been responsible for 38 deaths in the last five years, according to figures from the BBC. Data has revealed that the number of near-miss accidents on one section of the M25 has risen 20-fold since it was converted into a smart motorway in April 2014.

A recent BBC Panorama documentary entitled "Britain's Killer Motorways?" which aired on 28 January 2020 revealed a worrying lack of knowledge about the rules of driving on smart motorways by the general public. So what are 'smart' motorways and how safe are they?

Active Traffic Management technology

Smart motorways use Active Traffic Management ('ATM') technology to monitor traffic with the aim of reducing congestion. Traffic sensors in the road are designed to send alerts to regional control centres about traffic flow and average speeds. Using the data collected, computerised systems and CCTV operators can then set variable message signs and speed limits on the roads.

There are a number of types of smart motorway using ATM technology in the UK. One type of smart motorway allows the hard shoulder to be opened for use at busy times to ease traffic congestion. Another type allows the hard shoulder to be permanently used as a live lane of traffic.

Incidents and breakdowns

Clearly the use of the hard shoulder as a live lane on either type of smart motorway poses an inherent danger to road users. A driver whose vehicle breaks down on a smart motorway can end up being a sitting target. Road traffic accidents on smart motorways can cause live lane obstructions for oncoming traffic travelling at speed.

According to Highways England's own analysis, stopping in a live lane of traffic on a smart motorway with no hard shoulder more than triples the danger to road users when compared with stopping in the continuous hard shoulder on a traditional motorway.

Stationary Vehicle Detection ('SVD') technology is used on some of Britain's smart motorways and is capable of identifying traffic incidents and breakdowns. However, BBC Panorama recently revealed that even with SVD technology in operation, it takes, on average, around 17 minutes for a stationary vehicle to be detected. In that time, the lives of many road users are likely to be in serious imminent danger.

The future of smart motorways

Earlier this week, the boss of Highways England warned that dynamic smart motorways are "too complicated" for drivers. The government is expected to make recommendations in a matter of weeks to ensure that Britain's motorways are as safe as they possibly can be.

It is clear that the use of technology on Britain's motorways can help us to maximise existing road space and increase highway capacity without the need to expand or build new roads. However, many critics are calling for smart motorways to be axed given the dangers that they pose to road users. With the government set to review the network shortly, the future of technology-assisted roads and Britain's 'smart' motorways is uncertain.

You can find more information and guidance on how to drive on a smart motorway at the government's website.