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Smart motorways: will the gain be worth the pain?

Data Blocks
Data Blocks

They were supposed to make things easier, but Smart Motorways have become the bane of many fleet managers’ and drivers’ lives in recent years. However, the good news is that the government’s long-running programme of investment in these initiatives is starting to bear fruit. Earlier this month, an upgraded section of the M3 opened between Farnborough and the M25 – although the smart motorway technology wasn’t actually switched on until after the initial opening.

There were further teething problems when – following the complaints of motoring groups who have expressed concerns about the lack of hard shoulder sections on smart motorways – it was announced that smart motorway refuge areas along the upgraded section of the M3 would be painted orange in an attempt to make them more visible to drivers. However, the AA says provision of such refuge areas is still insufficient and it wants to see the number of them at least doubled.

But as smart motorways are only going to become a more frequent phenomenon over the coming years, it’s worth getting familiar with them now. So just what are they, and what is it hoped that they’ll achieve and will they help address today's fleet management challenges?

What is a smart motorway?

In a nutshell, smart motorway systems use technology to manage the flow of traffic more efficiently. The aim is to minimise disruption and congestion, as the build-up of traffic is monitored from control centres. The operatives at these control centres can close or open lanes and change speed limits accordingly, keeping – at least theoretically – traffic moving relatively freely. Hard shoulders can be opened to traffic permanently or temporarily as part of smart motorway systems.

There are three main types of smart motorway: dynamic hard shoulder running schemes, all lane running schemes and controlled motorways. Dynamic hard shoulder running schemes open hard shoulders to traffic at busy periods, while all lane running schemes (as the name suggests) only close hard shoulders to traffic in the event of an incident. Controlled motorways leave the hard shoulder closed to traffic at all times except in an emergency, with variable speed limits across all lanes.

Are they really worth it?

Of course, as many long-suffering drivers will already be painfully aware, putting these schemes in to place takes time – and plenty of it. The necessary roadworks can drag on for years on end, and indeed they have in a lot of places. According to the Campaign for Better Transport, some motorists experienced longer delays after the introduction of smart motorway schemes than they did beforehand, and our own public opinion poll into road infrastructure highlighted that only 4% of respondents believed Smart Motorways should be a key initiative for the new government. However, as smart motorways in general are still in their infancy, it will most likely be a number of years before we can offer a reliable verdict on their success (or otherwise).

If smart motorways do eventually deliver the promised benefits, then this could be of obvious advantage to fleet operators by reducing congestion and allowing fleets to get to where they need to more quickly. However, they will also need to adapt as the new technology is introduced across the UK motorway network – and this is certainly a process that will take some time. But help is potentially already at hand. Telematics systems will undoubtedly play an important role as fleet operators adjust to the roll-out of smart motorways, facilitating dynamic fleet management and allowing for easy re-routing as and when it’s necessary.

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