Car Culture: Dumb Motorways

A weekly look at all that sucks in car culture, plus some good bits


“Smart motorways” assume there are dumb motorways. Yes, if they’re Smart motorways

There are no ‘Smart’ motorways in Scotland, probably because there are few motorways. Considering they are a death trap, this is a good thing. Scots tend to be of a cautious, practical mind. However, on a site devoted to all things Scottish, and knowing drivers in Scotland use England’s motorways for journeys south, peg on nose, this article has relevance.

The UK Government is taking a second look at its past counter-intuitive decision to turn motorway hard shoulders into peak hour extra lanes. Smart motorways are meant to be a cost-effective way of increasing road capacity, meaning it saves money at the cost of driver safety.

Smart motorways use variable speed limits to control traffic flow and, in some cases, instruct drivers to use the hard shoulder as a live running lane. That is, assuming the motorway has a hard shoulder. For obvious reasons these new types of road are controversial – people are likely to die on them for want of a safe zone.

How the Minister for Deathly Decisions thought that one a good idea is a mystery. Not only is the hard shoulder there for breakdowns, a safety zone, it acts as a pathway for police cars, ambulance and fire brigade. Moreover, that’s the same lane AA-RAC-Green Flag breakdown vans use to reach you. Ghoulish fact: it is also the lane the undertaker’s hearse uses to collect bodies from a crash site.

Unearthing of accident statistics show 38 people lost their lives on England’s roads on Smart motorways. More were maimed for life. Data obtained from Highways England show there was a 20-fold increase in the number of “near miss” incidents after a section of motorway was converted to “Smart” running. You have to think the MP’s who passed the proposal play video games a lot. They assume people don’t really die if caught up in a carnage of cars in reality. 

In the five years prior to its conversion to smart motorway, one section of the M25 – London orbital motorway – saw 72 “near miss” incidents. In the five years after the road was converted into a smart motorway there were 1,485 near miss incidents – defined as situations with “the potential to cause injury or ill health.” The deaths I mention earlier happened on a mere 200 miles or so of the UK’s 2,300-mile motorway network.

Recently I found myself on such a motorway just outside Newcastle on my way back to Edinburgh. There is no hard shoulder. My old car backfired a few times and coasted to a halt … in the middle lane, at night. Big rig trucks, vans and cars hurtled past on either side, horns blasting, lights blazing. As I sat there awaiting death, imagining the headline, “SNP Outcast Commits Suicide on Motorway’ – I decided I could wait for the inevitable or get out and push the car to the side, somewhere, anywhere, and get hit there.

On getting out, I saw the car had stopped on the crest of a short slope, below me on the left a slip road with a chevron area in front. The gradient helped me run the car to the ‘safe’ area and call the police, but I was there three hours before a tow van arrived. The two Geordie police officers were in total agreement, building a motorway without a hard shoulder is absolute madness.

The criticism of Smart motorways is aimed at what happens when a vehicle breaks down on an all-lane running (ALR) section of motorway, where every single lane including the hard shoulder is being used by live traffic. The majority of Smart motorways do not have automatic Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) technology in place. Consequently, Highways England operators take an average of 17 minutes to spot a broken-down vehicle using their CCTV, whereas SVD would be 16 minutes quicker.

When a broken-down vehicle is spotted, it then takes operators a further three minutes to change the signal for the obstructed lane to a ‘red X’. Even once this is done, many drivers have a tendency to ignore these red X signals, with Highways England issuing 180,000 warning letters for the offence between 2017 and late summer 2018.

Furthermore, recovery firms such as the AA, RAC and Green Flag refuse to recover vehicles from live lanes. Unless the driver is able to get their broken-down car to an emergency refuge area (as I did) spaced up to two miles apart from one another along Smart motorways – they will have to wait for either the police or Highways England to physically shut the lane before their breakdown company will recover the vehicle.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, whose name sounds like a mountain pass – told the BBC: “We absolutely have to have these as safe or safer than regular motorways or we shouldn’t have them at all.” Edmund King, president of the AA is more emphatic.

“There is much confusion and fear out there. If the Government is not going back to the drawing board to reinstate the hard shoulder, then the least they can do is to double the number of emergency refuge areas to every three-quarters of a mile. The current system is not fit for purpose. Too many avoidable deaths are occurring.”

The answer is common sense in neon lights. No motorway should be laid without regularly spaced emergency refuge laybys, standard on the new motorways completed in Scotland, in addition to having hard shoulders. For some sad reason Highways England continues to argue Smart motorways are safe and, well, terribly smart.

For Scotland’s drivers who dislike the myth ‘only the brave survive’, here are England’s motorways to avoid: the M42 in the West Midlands; Sections of the M25 around London, M6 in Birmingham, M62 in Manchester, M1 from London to Luton, and soon to be as much of a death trap, the M27. Gosh! Doesn’t England have a lot of motorways?

If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself in my situation, but your car won’t move, switch on the hazard warning lights, and get off the motorway immediately onto the grass or embankment where you can call the police. (If on an overhead bridge – it was good knowing you.) For insurance claim purposes, use your iPhone to take photographs of your vehicle before and after it gets smashed into smithereens. To fill the time awaiting the police car, pray that yours doesn’t cause a multi-vehicle pile up.


Using the ‘X’ lane

The red X signs on overhead gantries are there to warn us we must use other lanes. Then again, the simplest of icons can be seen as a challenge to the macho deranged driver. While it is illegal to drive in closed ‘red X’ lanes, 180,000 drivers received warning letters in the 18 months between 2017 and summer 2018 for the offence – which is now enforced by cameras and results in three penalty points and a £100 fine. Those disregarding the emphatic advice have a 50/50 chance of going to the mortuary in a body bag. In September last year accident data revealed the number of fatal motorway collisions increased by a fifth in 2018 compared to 2017.

Increase in untaxed cars

This won’t be a surprise to the enlightened who understand human nature. The number of drivers caught driving untaxed vehicles has doubled since the tax disc was abolished, no need to show the old disc on your windscreen. In the first 11 months of 2019, 1,222,053 drivers did not pay their vehicle’s road tax – officially called ‘Vehicle Excise Duty’ (VED) renamed because the money isn’t used to improve roads any more. Back in the day, in the whole of 2013 – the last full year in which tax discs were used – 693,270 were caught. The UK Government removed the need for paper tax discs in October 2014, claiming  it would save taxpayers £14 million per year. Alas, it costs a hellova lot to chase the tax dodgers and get them to pay up, and that doesn’t include police time.

Dyson payback time

I’ve one piece of good news. Sir Whatsit Dyson has paid back a £7.8 million grant to the Government (no interest included) because the vacuum cleaner man decided to scrap his electric car project. Dyson got the grant in 2016 amid expectations the project would bring an engineering and employment boom in the company’s home town of Wiltshire. (Stop giggling in the back! All applications for wads of welfare must be accompanied by a sound reason of extreme hardship.) For vacuum maker Dyson, cars really do suck.

Happy motoring!



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3 Responses to Car Culture: Dumb Motorways

  1. cellarshark says:

    You need to drive the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route and marvel at the lack of deaths since it opened. A motorway in all but name with most traffic meandering at 80mph, even at rush-hour. No hard shoulders; just very harsh gravel runoffs at the edge of the tarmac. There is, however, an occasional ’emergency layby’ every couple of miles. There is one roundabout to catch out the unawares – several trucks have gone straight over it in the last year.
    My car went into limp mode caused by clutch actuator failure (you may have experience of this too) in winter, in the dark, between two of those laybys, a mile from the safety of either of them. I coasted as close as I could to the nearside edge of the carriageway and sat there crapping myself with the offside half of the car still in the left hand lane and trucks thundering past, unable to pull out due to overtaking vehicles on their other side.
    Thankfully the car ‘reset’ itself after a few minutes and I was able to reach the next junction before the fault re-occurred but I would hate to find myself in that situation for a longer spell when the road is busy.

  2. Motorways should NEVER be without a hard shoulder. Even with one they are dangerous to be stuck on. I once met a fingerless young woman who had suffered extensive burns when her broken down car was hit on the hard shoulder by a lorry.

    Always get out and away ASAP

    I guess I feel very strongly about this.

    When I was 19 my parents asked me to fetch my younger sisters. As a reward for this chore, I was allowed to use dad’s Alfasud (guess that dates this). On M25 doing 70mph (true actually) in overtaking lane when the engine just switched off. I don’t know how my 19 year old self managed to get across a 4 lane stretch with no power (and do one attempt at restart on the way). I remember that it involved lots of HGV hooting but we were lucky.

    Quivering on hard shoulder, no phone. Quickly bailed and got clear. No phone. Went back briefly, unable to restart. Tried again 15min later. Fired up absolutely fine. Drove home on A roads (anxiously watching for places to pull over if it happened again).

    The car did the same another couple of times, no one could work out why. Probably just as well that it rusted to death very quickly.

    I am so glad that there was a hard shoulder.

    With no alternative, would I have had the sense or speed to put it right off the road (gravel, grass, embankment)?

    It’s unlikely.

    Smart Motorways are dumb and dangerous

  3. Grouse Beater says:

    A lucky escape! 🙂

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