Are 4 lanes better than 3?

Smart motorways are here! The future of road management has arrived! Presumably if it’s smart it’s better, right?

While it is a little too early to judge the impact in terms of reducing congestion and whether or not the “smart” features actually work, there has been a lot of discussion around the potential safety and usefulness.

Never one to miss out on a potential debate, we thought we’d get involved!

What IS a smart motorway anyway?

If you’re not sure, you’re not alone. In a recent survey by the IAM 67% of drivers polled said they hadn’t seen any publicity about smart motorways. Which is concerning, because there are things that drivers need to know.

The first Smart Motorway has recently opened on one stretch of the M25, between junctions 23 and 25. It means that there’s no hard shoulder – this has been turned into a 4th lane. So, what happens if someone breaks down? Where do they go? Well, the motorway is “smart” because cameras will detect when a vehicle stops, and that lane will be closed. Other drivers will be informed of the closure by a big red X and flashing beacons on the overhead signs.

There are more signals than this, though, and the fact that a lot of drivers might not know what to do if there is an emergency or a closure is causing concern amongst some people. The IAM poll found that 71% of respondents thought that smart motorways would be less safe than ones with a hard shoulder, and you can see why. As scary as it might be to have to use the hard shoulder, it provides reassurance that there’s somewhere to go if your car breaks down.

The debate is about whether the boost offered by the extra lane outweighs this. In this day and age cars rarely break down (note the use of the word rarely though, rather than never). In theory, having an extra lane will reduce congestion. This makes sense, doesn’t it? Spread the cars out and they’ll be able to keep moving faster.

Well unfortunately, the phenomenon of "induced demand" seems to rubbish this argument. In actual fact, that stretch of the M25 will probably be just as congested, with more cars. And potentially less safe. Steve Sutcliffe over on Auto Car’s written a pretty scathing piece about his impression of the first stretch of "smart" motorway, and the comments below are pretty interesting, with some people supporting it and others agreeing with Steve.

This will likely be the first of many smart motorways, and we need to give it time before we properly come to a conclusion. But at first at least, it might prove unpopular and unnerving for drivers accustomed to that reassuring empty space to the left.

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