Smart Motorway Tech Is Causing Road Incidents, Reports Find

Smart motorways were introduced to manage traffic and reduce congestion in the UK, using advanced technology to control flow and safety. These motorways make use of a dynamic system where the hard shoulder can be opened for traffic or closed, depending on the volume of cars. Features include variable speed limits and electronic signs to manage traffic effectively.

However, these motorways have been controversial due to safety concerns. Without a permanent hard shoulder, drivers who break down can be left in dangerous situations. A report by the BBC’s Panorama revealed that crucial technology failures are common, with hundreds of incidents where safety systems were non-operational, raising many safety questions.

In response to numerous safety concerns, the government has put a pause on the expansion of new smart motorways and pledged a large investment to enhance safety features on existing ones. This includes the addition of emergency refuge areas and improving the reliability of technology that detects stationary vehicles.


How Reliable Is The Technology Behind These Motorways?


Investigations by Panorama have exposed frequent failures in the smart motorway systems. Between June 2022 and February 2024, there were 392 reported incidents where necessary safety equipment malfunctioned— sometimes even for days.

For instance, there were outages at critical junctions where radar and cameras ceased to function, making it impossible to detect stationary vehicles promptly.

The statistics are troubling; National Highways admits their systems detect 89% of stopped vehicles, meaning 11% go unnoticed in potentially perilous positions. The reliance on technology that is not foolproof poses real risks, as echoed by Edmund King of the AA, who described driving on these motorways without fully functional safety measures as “playing Russian roulette with people’s lives.”



What Is Being Done To Improve Safety?


The government’s response to the outcry over smart motorways includes a substantial £900 million investment aimed at increasing safety measures. This fund is designated for enhancing detection systems and greatly increasing the number of emergency refuge areas where drivers can pull over if in trouble.

Despite these efforts, many, including Claire Mercer—who became a campaigner after her husband died on a smart motorway—argue that the measures are too little, too late. Mercer spoke on ongoing communication from insiders at National Highways who express concerns over the efficacy and reliability of the safety measures.

National Highways has outlined plans to build more emergency lay-bys and improve technological resilience to ensure better safety. Andrew Page-Dove, the agency’s operational control director, discussed closing the gap between public perception and the actual safety record of these motorways. He noted that additional educational campaigns are planned to inform drivers about the safe use of smart motorways.


What Happens Now With Motorway Developments?


After the decision to put a pause, the focus now moves to retrofitting current smart motorways with better safety features, as evidenced by the planned installation of additional emergency refuge areas. These changes aim to address the gaps in safety that have led to fatal incidents and widespread public concern.

So, the controversy has opened up the conversation about the overall strategy for managing traffic and keeping a sense of safety on Britain’s motorways. This includes exploring alternative solutions that might offer safer and more reliable ways to handle high traffic volumes without compromising driver safety.