11th June 2019

The UK’s smart motorways – are they proving successful and what does their future look like?

With the upgrading of the M6 between junctions 19 for Knutsford and 16 for Crewe where Trak Global Group’s headquarters are located recently having been completed after 3.5 years and upto a reported £274 million, we investigate whether smart motorways are proving to be more efficient and safe as intended1, 2.

What is a smart motorway?

Using ‘active traffic management’ (ATM) encompassing cameras, sensors, connected technology, fibre networks and even drones in some cases, along with a much higher concentration of gantry signs, a key feature of smart motorways is their variable and legally-enforceable speed limits that reflect traffic volumes, fluidity and other dynamics such as accidents, breakdowns and weather3.

There are four different types of smart motorway and since 2013 all have been devised as ‘all-lane running’ variants whereby the hard shoulder is converted into a live lane and typically expands a motorway from three lanes to four, with emergency refuge areas (ERA) spaced up to 1.5 miles apart4.

The other smart motorway classifications are ‘controlled motorways’ which use variable speed limits but retain a traditional hard shoulder for emergency and breakdown use only, ‘dynamic hard shoulder’ types whereby a white line demarcates the hard shoulder which can be used as a normal lane unless a red ‘X’ is displayed above it, and ‘through-junction running’ motorways where the hard shoulder can only be used leading up to a junction – but these older iterations are being phased out and hence rare.

The birth and reported success of managed/controlled motorways

RoSPA explains that a predicted 60% increase in UK traffic levels by 2040 contributed significantly to the government originally identifying ‘managed’ or ‘controlled’ motorways as a way of facilitating such capacity without widening roads5 – which in some places wouldn’t be possible, we would add.

Technically, the UK’s first smart motorway was opened in 2006 when the M42 in the Midlands adopted the ‘dynamic hard shoulder running’ approach, although it was labelled a ‘managed motorway’.

Writing in the Guardian7 in December 2008, Andrew Adonis, who subsequently served as transport secretary for the following two years, pointed to the trial of the UK’s first ATM scheme on the M42 as a success which “has proved popular with drivers whose motoring experience has improved” – although his favourable view was unsurprising.

Highways Agency’s ‘ATM Monitoring and Evaluation’ document8 published six months previously reported that the 4 Lane Variable Mandatory Speed Limits (4L-VMSL) pilot on the M42-ATM section had resulted in a 7% increase in observed capacity alongside a rise of up to 9% in 24-hour total flow. Despite the trial scheme having seen average journey times actually increase by 9% partly due to lower speed limits the report cited a weekday reduction in journey variability of up to 32%, with evening rush-hour journeys cut by as much as 24% on certain days.

In terms of safety results, written evidence from Intelligent Transport Systems as part of parliamentary select committee submissions9 from December 2010 stated that traffic casualties on the M42 stretch had halved during twelve months of trialling, while injuries reduced from 5.08 to 1.83 per month. Emissions, too, fell by up to 10% in the cases of NOx and particulate matter, although hydrocarbon emissions increased by 3%.

HighwaysIndustry.com examined accident statistics between junctions 32 and 35a on the M1, the upgrade of which was completed in March 2017, and fatal accidents remained at the same level as 2015 while serious accidents were slightly higher, albeit referring to fortunately very small numbers indeedh1. The peak of both types of incident in 2016 perhaps supports the perception of some that widespread stretches of 50mph roadworks during upgrades cause more accidents than the eventual smart motorways themselves. The website also analysed response and clean-up times during 2015-to-2017 and found that all three years saw it take longer to get that stretch of the M1 running again after any closures, in comparison to 2014 and earlier.

A number of voices, although admittedly a minority, have continued to label smart motorways as a ‘cash cow’C10 or used other critical phraseology to promote the view that such roads and their heavy reliance on camera technology are primarily a covert revenue-generating scheme from the government. The TimesC11 reported that 2015 saw over one thousand motorists every week fined £100 for transgressing smart motorway variable speed limits, while an article on PetrolPrices.comC12 pointed to the roads generating £2 million or more in fines each year since their inception. Additionally, under the heading ‘Do ATMs work?’, CLM cited a Highways Agency report showing that 72,348 drivers were fined on smart motorways in 2017 and reminded readers that fines of up to £2,500 are now possible, potentially enabling £90 million in revenue to be generatedC13.

Any mechanisms that result in reducing road injuries and deaths must be welcomed, though, and it could be argued that varying fines to reflect how much a motorist earns and how significantly they were speeding is a justifiable move if it increases road users’ safety.

Continued reactions to smart motorways’ growth across the UK

Thirteen years after the ATM pilot on the M42, many of the country’s motorways have seen sizeable stretches upgraded6 to ‘smart’, from the M1, M3, M4 and M6 to the M25, M60 and M62. Other UK motorways are either currently undergoing upgrades or have been earmarked for conversion to smart in the near future, such as the A1(M), M23 and M56.

In 2015, a year after all-lane running became the norm’ and the term ‘smart motorway’ truly entered public consciousness, Auto Express9 reported the Institute of Advanced Motorists (AIM)’s concerns that, perhaps unsurprisingly, this new type of road was causing confusion among motorists. Entirely understandably, the absence of hard shoulders, the sometimes long distances between ERAs and fear over what to do in puncture, breakdown and other emergency situations were the primary worries for 71% of drivers surveyed.

That same year, a column published on bt.com10 asserted that smart motorways have done little to improve congestion and journey times and expressed the view that motorways with part-time hard shoulders should restrict their use as live lanes to lorries, buses, coaches and other vehicles carrying more than one occupant. The argument put forward certainly sounds reasonable, that such restrictions, which could be enforced by intelligent cameras, would encourage the more rapid adoption of ride-sharing. But the author Matt Joy’s ideal of 80% of cars disappearing from the roads as colleagues take to sharing journeys is never going to happen – and indeed, four years on, mere observation proves that a large proportion of cars still carry single occupants.

The piece’s mention of autonomous vehicle platooning will indeed excitingly materialise in the future and certainly make motorways more efficient than ever, but it’s encouraging to see that frequent varying of speed limits is already carried out on the UK’s smart motorways, gantry signs reacting swiftly to everything from debris and changes in weather to pedestrians in the road.

Away from official sources, it is always interesting to gauge reaction from everyday motorists by reading comments on internet forums. Under a discussion thread12 entitled “Since the opening of the M60 Smart Motorway, has anyone found that it has helped their commute or journey or is the same old thing with fancy signs?” mixed sentiments paint an inconclusive picture. M60-users’ responses range from perceiving that there are fewer accidents and that journey times have indeed shortened, to drivers feeling that no tangible improvements have resulted, with congestion still prevalent especially around key junctions. Overall, though, the upgrade of the M60 to the west of Manchester seems to be regarded as successful, worth the years during which motorists had to ensure long stretches of 50mph roadworks. Similarly, we would say that journey times and traffic flow certainly seem to have improved between junctions 16 and 19 of the M6 in observational and general terms.

Smart motorways’ effectiveness and safety questioned in 2019

Throughout 2018 and continuing on into 2019, growing numbers of organisations have begun expressing concerns over smart motorways. A BBC news headline13 in December, for example, stated that “MPs want halt to smart motorway rollout over safety concerns” under the belief that all-lane running motorways with no hard shoulder are placing drivers and breakdown/recovery personnel in unacceptable danger.

The RAC submitted a freedom of information request to Highways England and found that England has 100 miles of such motorways at the moment, with plans for 225 miles more, and MPs including Tracey Crouch have based their cessation calls on understandably worrying statistics such as 16 crashes resulting in injury occurring on the 100 miles of ALR motorway, compared to 29 similar accidents on the rest of England’s 1,800-mile motorway network. We can understand the voices who say that this ratio speaks for itself.

Motorists themselves are put under the spotlight in the Sky News article “Why drivers might have made smart motorways more dangerous?” in which former Transport Minister Sir Mike Penning quite rightly asks: “Why are so many people dying when they come to your rescue on our motorways? If six police officers were killed every year there would be uproar, yet we have six rescue workers being killed every year.” The article cites a worrying study by Highways England from which it was identified that one in five drivers ignore red gantry crosses indicating lane closure, exposing recovery operatives to considerable risk. We regularly come across educational articles in the media regarding driving on smart motorways, though, so this statistic can’t be attributed to lack of awareness.

Vehicle recovery workers being able to use red flashing lights rather than orange would go some way towards increasing their safety in the eyes of the Campaign for Safer Roadside Recovery and Rescue, while the aforementioned group of cross-party parliamentarians wants to see the rollout of smart motorways halted.

Conversely, though, Highways England has repeatedly told the media and others that smart motorways are as safe as traditional motorways.

The organisation’s chief executive Jim O’Sullivan told Fleet News14: “We are seeing fewer breakdowns on smart motorways – people take maintenance more seriously – and we also have fewer vehicles running out of fuel (5-10% of all breakdowns. This is because of the signage pointing to the next fuel station.”

Safety is arguably the most important variable, though, and although the percentage breakdown of smart motorways’ contribution hasn’t been revealed, it’s encouraging to learn that killed and seriously injured (‘KSI’) statistics experienced a 7.6% drop in 2017, placing Highways England’s 40% KSI reduction target in comparison to 2005-2009 levels within feasible reach.

What does the future look like for smart motorways?

Despite arguments against their effectiveness and evidence supporting assertions that they can at times be very dangerous for stricken motorists, recovery personnel and emergency services, it’s highly likely that smart motorways will continue to be rolled out across the UK over coming years.

With single occupancy vehicles still dominant and traffic levels along with congestion continuing to increase each year15, smart motorways are certainly one of the best short-term solutions, and 400 extra miles of them are now reportedly planned16.

So-called ‘digital roads’ are just one part of a tapestry of connected systems we will all relatively quickly become accustomed to over the next few years, and Fleet News17 reports that the M2/A2 motorway in Kent is staging trials in vehicle-to-infrastructure V2X connectivity.

As pioneers in the automotive space, this is exciting news to us and will surely make the motorway network as efficient as possible, vehicles able to exchange data – including swarm information – with computer systems and dynamic signage. Essentially, equipped ‘connected’ vehicles will inform the road network in real-time of delays, debris, and the sudden onset of dangerous weather situations such as flooding, plus all manner of other data.

V2X will ultimately enable journey times to be predicted more accurately and GPS rerouting to be made more dynamically. Combined with the eventual platooning of connected autonomous vehicles (CAV), the UK’s road network will eventually be revolutionised.


1. https://www.cheshire-live.co.uk/news/chester-cheshire-news/smart-motorway-works-m6-cheshire-15698565
2. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/super-structure-lifted-over-m6-as-part-of-major-technology-upgrade
3. https://www.alphr.com/cars/1008529/smart-motorways-UK-what-where
4. https://inews.co.uk/essentials/lifestyle/cars/car-features/how-to-use-smart-motorways/
5. https://www.rospa.com/road-safety/advice/drivers/better-driving/smart-motorways/
6. https://highwaysengland.co.uk/programmes/smart-motorways/
7. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2008/dec/05/transport
8. https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http:/www.dft.gov.uk/pgr/roads/tpm/m42activetrafficmanagement/atm12mthsumrep.pdf
9. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmtran/writev/etm/etm.pdf
10. https://www.autoexpress.co.uk/car-news/consumer-news/91140/concern-that-motorists-dont-understand-smart-motorways
H1. https://www.highwaysindustry.com/smart-motorways-really-better-option-facts-will-help-decide/
C10. https://www.petrolprices.com/news/budget-reveals-government-money-maker/
C11. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/smart-motorways-catch-1-000-drivers-speeding-every-week-bq9jqbxrk
C12. https://www.petrolprices.com/news/budget-reveals-government-money-maker/
C13. https://www.clm.co.uk/blog/speeding-smart-motorways/
11. http://home.bt.com/lifestyle/motoring/motoring-features/opinion-its-time-for-smart-motorways-to-get-even-smarter-11364002500463
12. https://www.reddit.com/r/manchester/comments/beovhr/since_the_opening_of_the_m60_smart_motorway_has/
13. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-46553654
14. https://www.fleetnews.co.uk/news/fleet-industry-news/2019/06/04/smart-motorways-are-safe-says-highways-england
15. https://uk.motor1.com/news/349729/uk-69bn-motorway-miles-2018/
16. https://www.roadtraffic-technology.com/news/highways-england-smart-motorway-400-miles/
17. https://www.fleetnews.co.uk/news/fleet-industry-news/2019/06/04/smart-motorways-are-safe-says-highways-england