Motorways to get traffic lights to beat congestion

Β£7m pilot project will involve installation of traffic lights on motorway slip roads

Words By Claire Evans

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Highways England has revealed plans for a pilot scheme to introduce traffic lights to the slip road between the M6 and M62 in Cheshire to improve traffic flow.

The trial will begin on 18 November and end in July 2018, with traffic flow being monitored by cameras.

β€œThe M2M Metering Pilot Scheme is part of our programme to increase the resilience of the network in order to support economic growth and maintain mobility. The scheme aims to smooth traffic flows, provide more reliable journey times and increase and improve the quality of information for road users,” said a Highways England spokesperson.

The announcement comes soon after the 2017 RAC Report on Motoring found that 61% of drivers said congestion on motorways has increased in the past 12 months.

Last month, Highways England stated that it wants to increase the speed limit for vehicles travelling through roadworks from 50mph to 60mph to ease congestion and lessen the impact of road repair and improvement works.

Jim O'Sullivan, Highways England’s chief executive, said the 60mph limit is "something that we want to introduce to as many roadworks as possible".

However, he added that lower speeds are likely to be maintained in areas with narrow lanes, contraflows or where workers are close to the road. The higher limits could be introduced in 2018.

Motorways are getting smarter

Smart motorways are a response to increasing congestion on UK motorways. They use cameras and speed signs to monitor the flow of traffic and many allow cars to be driven on the hard shoulder all or some of the time.

The thinking behind smart motorways is sensible: they add an extra 33% of capacity to our motorway network at a fraction of the cost – in money, time and to the environment – of physically adding another lane to every stretch of motorway.

On top of that, smart motorways improve the flow of traffic, and that is good for the economy. They could be an ingenious way of offsetting the Β£2 billion a year that the UK’s economy is losing due to congestion caused by long-term underinvestment in roads and increased traffic volume.

At the time of writing, there are more than 20 sections of smart motorway on seven motorways in England, plus six sections under construction and a further 18 planned.

What is a smart motorway?

There are currently three types of smart motorway:

1. Controlled motorway

This type of motorway has variable speed limits monitored via a regional traffic centre; vehicles can only use the hard shoulder in an emergency, such as a breakdown. An example of this is the western section of the M25.

2. Hard shoulder running

On this type of motorway, the traffic control centre allows vehicles to use the hard shoulder at peak times to ease congestion. When the hard shoulder is in use, a speed-limit sign is displayed on the gantries above it; when it’s not in use, they will show a red 'X'.

It’s an offence to drive along a hard shoulder when the red 'X' is showing; if you do, you may get a fine. Junctions 7-9 on the M42 are operated in this way. There are emergency refuge areas (ERAs) at set intervals for vehicles to use if they break down.

3. All lanes running

Traffic uses the hard shoulder as a normal lane all the time on these stretches of motorway. They also have ERAs at regular intervals.

What are the concerns about smart motorways?

The first smart motorways had ERAs every 500-800 metres, giving drivers plenty of safe havens if their cars break down.

However, in 2013, the Department for Transport decided that any new scheme would use all lanes and that the distance between ERAs could be up to 2.5km (1.5 miles). The combination of these two factors has led the emergency services and breakdown rescue providers to voice serious concerns about the safety of their staff and other road users.

β€œWe believe the greater distance between ERAs creates an unnecessary risk to any motorist breaking down in lane one [formerly the hard shoulder] on an all-lane-running motorway,” said David Bizley, chief engineer at the RAC.

Of the drivers surveyed by the RAC, 84% felt that the hard shoulder was important in breakdowns and accidents, while 82% said they would feel β€œvery concerned” if they broke down in lane one of an all-lane-running section of motorway.

Smart motorways have also had an impact on the ability of the emergency services to reach accident scenes because they no longer have a hard shoulder to drive along. They have instead developed a new strategy of closing the other side of the motorway to get to the accident.

What rules must I abide by on a smart motorway?

There are two things to keep in mind. First, ERAs on a smart motorway are for emergency use only, so you should not stop in them for any other reason. Once you’ve stopped there, you shouldn’t pull back onto the motorway until the authorities tell you it’s safe to do so.

The other thing to remember is that it is an offence to drive in a lane with a red 'X' on the gantry above it. While doing this is only likely to result in a warning letter from the police at present, there are plans to introduce fixed penalty fines in the future, so it’s best to get into the habit of leaving a closed lane as soon as you can.

Next: what to do if your car breaks down on a smart motorway >

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