Drivers no longer need the hard shoulder, says Highways England amid criticism of smart motorways

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Drivers no longer require a hard shoulder, the government agency which operates the UK’s major roads has said, amid criticism of the shift to smart motorways. 

Matt Pates, who manages the East Midlands division of Highways England, said the need for hard shoulders had now become redundant due to the improved safety of our motorways. 

In the smart motorway model, hard shoulders are removed or reduced in size to improve traffic flow and open more lanes up to drivers. 

Mr Pates said the hard shoulder was designed decades ago when cars were not as reliable. Most drivers now receive advanced warning when there is a fault with their motor, negating the need for the emergency lane, he said. 

Motorways are “as safe, if not safer” without hard shoulders which are not “hospitable” places for motorists Mr Pates added. 

Hard shoulders are currently used as a regular driving lane on 113 miles of motorway in England. Around 400 miles of motorway has been converted to a “smart motorway”. 

Smart motorways also use technology to adapt speed limits based on traffic conditions. Sensors under the road surface and a “side-fire” radar work in tandem with Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) cameras to assess the volume and speed of vehicles and  adjust the speed limits accordingly which are then projected on screens overhead.  

Speed limits can be lowered in busy stretches of motorway to avoid congestion. 

Mr Pates said that while he has received complaints about speed limit reductions it works to prevent traffic jams.

“[The computer] slows the traffic down before it breaks down, it doesn’t wait for it to happen,” he told the BBC. 

A technical glitch on June 20 caused three lanes on a stretch of motorway between Leicester and Nottingham to be closed leading to miles of traffic build-up.  Highways England was unable to override the computer system which would not reopen the lanes. 

Highways England responded saying technical glitches are “extremely rare”.

The eradication of the hard shoulder has been criticised by road safety workers and a cross-party group of MPs has called for a safety review of smart motorways. 

PC Stuart King, motorway police said it is more difficult to reach the scene of an incident when the hard shoulder is removed. 

“We have to force our way through the small gaps between lorries, cars and whereas before we would use the hard shoulder to get there much quicker. We are now stuck,” he said. 

Dave Poole, motorway recovery driver said the removal of hard shoulders poses a danger to breakdown assistance workers. 

“(For) people that have to go down and work on the motorways, that’s where the element of risk increases. There’s no consequence to the general public unless a member of the public’s vehicle has a catastrophic failure, the electrics go and they have to abandon it in what is potentially a live lane,” Mr Poole said. 

Adding: “We’re the people that are at risk everyday and the longer we’re down there, the more at risk we are. By taking this away they’re actually risking more lives.”

Defending the new road model, a Highways England spokesman said research shows that smart motorways are as safe as traditional ones. 

“Smart motorways are good for drivers. They add extra lanes, giving extra space, so more people can travel.They use technology which makes journeys more reliable and evidence proves they are as safe as traditional motorways,” the spokesman said. 



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