For the past year, Highways England has been working on its “smart motorways” plan, which it began enacting in March, 2020, in partnership with the U.K. Department for Transport. The goal of this plan is enhanced road safety, utilizing a combination of technology and streamlining of existing roadway structures. So, how’s it doing now? Let’s find out.
After the first year in action, HE says that it’s well ahead of schedule in its planned rollout converting existing motorways into smart motorways in an attempt to improve road safety. What does that mean, you ask? According to HE, hard shoulders on roads are demonstrably less safe than what they call “All Lane Running” (ALR) roads. However, to make the whole thing work, several additional pieces of technology are needed.
Conversion to smart motorways, as HE is doing it, involves complete removal of hard shoulders on motorways. Instead of hard shoulders, there are designated emergency areas, which are marked orange for increased visibility. There are also more signs to let you know how far away an emergency area is. Additionally, these emergency areas are set well back from live traffic lanes, to make them safer than currently existing hard shoulder areas. The eventual plan is to locate emergency areas about ¾ of a mile apart, with no more than 1 mile of distance between them.
That’s just one piece of the puzzle, though. If smart motorways are to succeed with their ALR scheme, stopped vehicles are still going to end up stuck in live motor lanes. After all, sudden breakdowns happen, and you can’t always pull off at the next available emergency area if an incident is both unforeseen and catastrophic. That’s why HE is also employing radar stationary vehicle detection (SVD) units along its smart motorways.
HE claims that radar SVD units can detect stationary vehicles within 20 seconds, then send a message back to the control center. A red X will then appear on the many digital signs located along the smart motorway, telling road users to avoid the affected lane. This also, in theory, will summon assistance to the stricken vehicle more quickly.
In turn, that will also allow automatic fines to be issued to red X violators, as well as points issued on their licenses. However, it’s unclear how much warning this system will give road users to get out of a lane with a red X before they are considered to be in violation. Increased use of CCTV along smart motorways will feed constant surveillance back to control rooms monitoring the traffic situation.
Highways England has already trialed its radar SVD on the M25, as well as certain stretches of the M3 and M20. As of March, 2021, it was beginning installation on the M1, as well. Since the trial has so far worked well, HE announced plans to install it on every future smart motorway, as well as any ALR motorways that already exist. It originally planned to do this by March, 2023, but work is going so well that it now says that work will be complete by September, 2022 instead.
If you’re interested, you can see more specifications and statistics in Highways England’s full first-year progress report on the project.