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Reviewing smart motorways part 3: Are there alternatives to smart motorways?

So far in this series, we’ve considered the public sentiment towards smart motorways and their safety record. We’ll now consider the alternative solutions to the additional capacity we require.

As mentioned in part 1, we need to address the huge and growing issue of congestion in this country. INRIX identified the cost of congestion to drivers in 2018 to be £7.9 billion. This is a huge cost, to put it into context, the total public sector on spending on Transport in 2018-19 was £35 billion. So, we need to increase capacity to reduce congestion and we need to do this as efficiently as possible.

Unless we are to believe that we will all be upgrading to autonomous vehicles capable of travelling much closer together in the next five years, we need to increase the size of our roads to increase capacity. To do so, the only real alternative to smart motorway schemes is to widen the motorways. But this comes at a huge cost.

The precise costs vary from scheme to scheme, but as an example, the M25 J27–30 motorway widening scheme cost £272.4 million. That’s around £16.2 million per mile. In comparison, the cost of upgrading the M25 J5-6/7 to an All Lane Running (ALR) scheme was £121 million. That’s around £6.5 million per mile.

So, the title of this blog may be a little misleading—with such a huge difference in costs, it’s hard to argue traditional widening schemes as a viable alternative. That leaves the challenge of making ALR schemes work for both Highways England and the public.

Arguably, so long as vehicle detection and a rapid response from emergency services are in place to activate the red X above a lane that has a broken-down vehicle in it, smart motorways should not be more dangerous than standard motorways.

Clearview provides such vehicle detection and introduced the very first MIDAS (Motorway Incident Detection and Automatic Signalling) system in the UK on the M25 over 20 years ago. We still provide this service but have introduced efficiencies into the vehicle detection element. Instead of using inductive loops, which damage the integrity of the road surface and are costlier and more time consuming to install, we now utilise wireless vehicle detection. Our M100 wireless vehicle detection system works in the same way to loops without the drawbacks of inductive loops.

Video analytics may soon also provide an alternative as the technology advances, as may other sensor-based systems that can perform multiple functions. For example, a road stud that provides a view of the road ahead while also detecting incidents and stationary traffic.

Once an incident has been detected, its vital that drivers are made aware of this without delay and that drivers adhere to the red X. Earlier this year, a study found that as many as 20 per cent of vehicles were driving through the red X signs indicating that a lane is closed on a smart motorway.

Clearly, more needs to be done to educate drivers on the dire consequences of ignoring these signs and ultimately people need to be prosecuted for driving in a red X lane until every driver understands they need to get out of that lane as quickly as it is safe to do so. Highways England are planning to introduce a fixed penalty fee of £100 and three penalty points for drivers who don’t adhere to the red X rule at the end of this month (March 2019).

Highways England are also responding to the calls to make ERAs more frequent and visible (see part 1), this needs to continue. While it will increase the cost of upgrading roads to smart motorways, it may be a workable compromise between a hard shoulder and ALR scheme.

As with any infrastructure challenge the issue of smart motorways is vast and complex. Perhaps, as with the recovery workers, we need more voices from the highways industry to offer suggestions. What has your experience been of driving or working on smart motorways? Share your thoughts on our LinkedIn page here.

Author: MichelleC-H |Date Published: March 2019

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