The Times, 15 April 2014
Philip Pank, Transport Correspondent
Smart technology that allows the hard shoulder to be turned into a fourth lane, flopped yesterday when a breakdown cause a jam
It was heralded as a solution to the interminable M25 jams in which drivers can be trapped for hours. Smart technology would allow the hard shoulder on one of the busiest stretches of the motorway to be turned into a fourth lane, immediately easing congestion.
Yesterday it was given the green light but almost immediately ran into trouble. The engine of a car cut out and, with the driver unable to pull over, a long tailback began to grow.
Motoring organisations had foreseen the problem, opposing the introduction of “smart” motorway technology on an eight-mile stretch of the M25 in Hertfordshire, on the grounds that drivers who break down would be more at risk without quick access to a safe area. There are emergency refuges for those in difficulty, but they are 2.5km apart.
Paul Watters, the AA’s head of roads policy, said that an “almighty tailback” developed early yesterday, just as ministers were hailing the development as the future of motorway driving.
“We are going to have to contend with it because it is going to happen again, possibly day in, day out. It reduces resilience of the road when something happens and that is the problem.”
He added: “We have concerns about people getting trapped in lane one, people who may have broken down in the dark and may not be spotted and are potentially an enormous hazard.”
David Bizley, technical director of the RAC, said that his organisation was also concerned about safety implications. He said the Highways Agency’s own risk assessment had concluded that motorists who broke down were more likely to become casualties.
Schemes similar to one between Junctions 23 and 25 of the M25 are being built between Junctions 25 and 27 and also between Junctions 5 and 6/7 on the same motorway. The hard shoulder is being turned into a continuous running lane on the M3 between Junctions 2 and 4a and there are plans to do the same between Junctions 3 and 12 on the M4. Other schemes will be introduced on the M1, M62 and other roads.
The Highways Agency said that “smart motorways” were at least as safe as conventional roads. Motorists will be subjected to variable mandatory speed limits at times of particularly heavy traffic or when a lane is blocked. Temporary restrictions are displayed on overhead gantries.
Infrared CCTV cameras relay images of breakdown or potential hazards back to a control room, while sensors buried in the road surface measure the volume of traffic. Grey speed cameras enforce the temporary speed limits. The Highways Agency declined to say whether the speed cameras were also housed in the overhead gantries or were mounted separately on the roadside.
The agency believes that the technology will reduce congestion, ease traffic flows and improve reliability of journey times. Graham Dalton,chief executive, said: “Smart motorways are quicker to build, more intuitive for drivers and more efficient to operate, while maintaining safety.”