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Variable speed limits: how will they affect fleets?

Data Blocks
Data Blocks

With the roads subject to more and more pressure, and concern over environmental issues on the increase, new schemes are being introduced across the country in an effort both to manage congestion and reduce air pollution.

In June, the Welsh government introduced a temporary speed limit of 50mph along five stretches of major Welsh roads, including sections of the M4 near Newport and Port Talbot. The stated aim of this was to cut air pollution, which the Welsh government contributes to around 2,000 deaths a year in Wales. This follows the introduction of the ‘smart motorway’ scheme along part of the M60 in Greater Manchester, now fully operational after years of delays and disruption. It was also reported last year that Highways England was considering introducing a 60mph speed limit for part of the M1 near Sheffield, again with a view to improving air quality.

Even smart traffic lights are set to be trialled on British roads in an attempt to reduce pollution. With schemes such as these becoming increasingly commonplace, it seems important to ask what the potential implications for fleets might be. Needless to say, failure to take adequate account of reduced or variable speed limits could result in firms racking up expensive fines for speeding, so it’s all the more important to be aware and prepared now.

Smart motorways: the new norm?

The M60 smart motorway scheme is highly unlikely to be the last of its kind. Indeed, Highways England announced last month that, over the next 18 months, work is due to start on four new smart motorway projects in the north-west alone. This includes a busy nine-mile section of the M62 which links the M6 at Warrington with the M60 at the Eccles Interchange.

It is important to note that many drivers don’t quite seem to have got to grips with how smart motorways work, and in particular that the variable speed limits aren’t advisory or optional. This is evidenced by the amount of speeding fines issued along smart motorway stretches of the M60 and M62 over the last three-and-a-half years, which now totals more than £8m. Fleets therefore need to take proactive steps to train drivers on speed awareness. Ongoing driver training is also essential given that driving laws and regulations are subject to continual change and revision. 

The logic behind smart motorways is to manage the flow of traffic more effectively, and minimise the risk of disruption. However, the work involved in actually implementing these schemes can itself be hugely disruptive. This poses challenges for fleets operating in areas affected by this work, as there is inevitably going to be some impact on logistical planning and scheduling. The use of fleet management software is particularly important in pre-emptively taking account of potential disruption, allowing for routes to be prepared in advance and for any anticipated delays to be included in scheduling. Routing and scheduling software can utilise traffic data to optimise routes, allowing managers to mitigate the effects of congestion where necessary so that the impact on customer service standards is minimal. 

The implications for fleet safety

Although the authorities stress that safety is one of their key considerations in implementing smart motorway schemes and variable speed limits, research indicates that drivers themselves are wary. According to one survey carried out earlier this year, nearly two-thirds – 64 per cent – of motorists surveyed expressed reservations about whether smart motorways were truly safe. Just over half (51 per cent) gave their main concern as breaking down without being able to access a hard shoulder. 

This perhaps underlines the need for fleets to again be proactive with regard to fleet safety and vehicle maintenance. Fleet telematics greatly simplifies the process of monitoring the condition of performance of vehicles and scheduling their maintenance. These systems greatly reduce the risk of unexpected vehicle breakdowns, which could otherwise expose drivers to potentially hazardous situations. Thorough pre-trip inspections could also help to highlight issues with vehicles before they develop into serious faults.

Inevitably, there will be some trial and error as fleets adapt to the introduction of smart motorways and lowered or variable speed limits along key routes. However, the use of these fleet management solutions can make that process of adaptation much simpler than it might be otherwise.

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