Smart motorways are keeping people moving

When the first motorway opened almost 60 years ago near Preston, on what is now known as the M6, most people saw the future of travel in a world like The Jetsons, where the sky would host the daily commute.

Fast forward to today and though we may not have our own flying pods, motorways now connect our cities, towns and ports and keep more than 4 million people, as well as millions of tonnes of freight, safely moving on a daily basis.

The evolution of our motorways over the last decade or so has focused on harnessing advances in technology to increase capacity by using the hard shoulder for live traffic, and to keep traffic moving by dynamically opening and closing lanes to manage incidents. These upgraded roads are known as smart motorways, and drivers across the country have safely been using some versions of these for years.
On the latest version of smart motorways, all-lane running, we have permanently converted the hard shoulder for traffic use.

The initial results from all-lane running are good. At locations where we have introduced it on the M25, evidence from the first 12 months shows that the busiest journey times have been almost halved and collision and casualty rates cut by around 20%.

These improvements are needed as soon as possible to support a growing economy and for future road users; traffic is forecast to increase on the strategic road network by between 27% and 57% by 2040, according to the Road Investment Strategy.

We know that transport is more than just the movement of people and goods; it provides the vital links which create jobs, the opportunity for new homes to be built and allow businesses to grow to meet new demand.

It's not just engineering or physical improvements that are needed; for Highways England it's about how our customers experience the road and the vehicles that they use. For smart motorways, we need to account for what people think and feel as they travel in an upgraded environment.

Take for example the hard shoulder. There is the perception that the hard shoulder is a safe place because it is where people go to in an emergency. We are reminding drivers to stop on the hard shoulder only in an emergency. For all-lane running, where emergency refuge areas at intervals replace the hard shoulder, we also looking at the size and signing of these areas, to improve awareness of the places to stop in an emergency when drivers are unable to leave the motorway safely.

Electronic signs on smart motorways allow us to dynamically alter the information we provide to drivers, and enable us to close lanes and reduce speeds to manage traffic safely, tackle stop-start flows and improve journeys.

We are doing more to communicate the importance of the closed "red X" lanes which protect road users and road workers in a breakdown or other emergency. This formed a key part of the company's summer journey planning campaign, targeting those who use unfamiliar routes as part of their summer getaway.

Last month, we hosted BBC's The One Show at our Wakefield regional control centre and took them out with traffic officers on the M1 and M62 smart motorways. The show, reaching 3-4 million viewers, led to an increase in visits to our smart motorway webpages. I expect that similar engagement with the media will, over time, help to change the way drivers understand our roads.

This is an example of how, as a company, Highways England is continually striving to improve as we evolve our motorways, which provide some of the safest journeys on our roads and help keep people and businesses moving.

Reference: Transport Times December 2016 Issue

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