Motorists who regularly travel the length and breadth of the country on our otherwise excellent motorway network will be familiar with the workings of a controversial traffic control system which is in place. This system is now acknowledged by motoring organisations, the Police Federation and the motoring public alike to be an impediment to both safety and to the smooth running of the network. I refer of course to the so called “Smart Motorway” system that was devised by the Highways Agency (now Highways England) and introduced to the UK in 2010 during the term of office of the last Labour Government.

The scheme, which has now been renamed “all lane running roads”, in an attempt to avoid derisive nicknames, was “trialled” on a stretch of the M42 motorway in 2006 before being confirmed for general use throughout the UK in 2007. Full approval came in February 2010. This £2billion scheme (now approaching £4billion) was claimed by Highways England to “cut journey times” and “reduce vehicle emissions”.

How does it work? In order to permit traffic to run on the former hard shoulder lane an automatic traffic control system is employed. Although having manual overrides, the system mainly utilises automatic speed detection known as “MIDAS” to determine the speed of traffic and other data. Should a reduction in speed be detected due to a road traffic incident, generally heavier traffic or poor weather conditions, the system has the capability to automatically initiate variable speed limits on the preceding stretch of the motorway via the matrix signals. Typically this will result in a 60mph limit reducing to 50mph and ultimately 40mph at successive matrix signals.

In practice due to the “bunching effect” of traffic which inevitably occurs when traffic moving at or near the national limit is reduced to only 40mph, the flow of traffic will more often than not “grind to a halt” at the 40mph signal. Furthermore, matrix restriction signals are often not cancelled for some considerable time after the initial event has cleared.

A typical example of unnecessary delays which I experienced on a trip from Sheffield to London on the M1 in September 2021 is as follows:

  • Nottinghamshire -standing traffic following a 40mph matrix limit due to “reports of a broken down vehicle”. Following 15 minutes of stop start traffic the offending vehicle was seen on the entry slip road rather than the motorway causing no possible danger or obstruction to the traffic flow.
  • Leicestershire-- standing traffic following 40mph matrix limit due to reports of a pedestrian on the motorway. After 15 minutes stop/start traffic a Highways agency operative was seen walking by the crash barrier alongside the hard shoulder.
  • Luton- standing traffic for 20 minutes at a 40mph matrix limit. A telephone call to Highways England revealed that there was in fact “no problem at all” but that there had been “reports all day” of system malfunction in this area.

Another typical problem was also observed in September 2021 when emergency and recovery services took 7 hours to remove a burning articulated vehicle from the M25 motorway due clearly to the difficulty of emergency and recovery vehicles gaining access to the scene of the incident without the benefit of a hard shoulder to provide access. Major standing traffic delays were experienced throughout the day and no diversion warnings were issued via the matrix signals for additional traffic joining the M25 from the M4.

The Highways England claims of “reduced vehicle emissions” are clearly not borne out in practice however these concerns are of lesser consideration than the overriding concerns which are of course public safety.

Having personally experienced the “scary” circumstances that occur in the “ danger time “ before a stranded vehicle can be surrounded by the flashing lights of police cars and the unacceptable delay before the stationary vehicle detection radar (if installed) has alerted the matrix signals to close the blocked lane, it is clear to me that public safety concerns are warranted .

In the “not too distant” future, when electric vehicles become more widespread, there will be undoubted chaos with abandoned chargeless vehicles on the motorways to negotiate.

Regardless of any contractual cancellation penalties that may be incurred at this late stage of the scheme’s introduction, surely the Secretary of State for Transport Mr. Shapps should now make an albeit belated decision to cancel any future plans for the scheme’s “roll out” and to refrain from expending further funds on inserting intermediate lay-bys which cannot fully address the inherent problems with this flawed concept.

In summary, the “all running lanes” system has proved to be inherently dangerous and is often the cause of delays and increased emissions rather than the solution to these problems.

Frank September 2021