Smart Motorways: an incident cements an opinion

Regular travellers between Junctions 10 and 16 on the M25, London’s orbital motorway, know that this road section is always horrendously busy. This stretch is the ‘controlled’ kind of ‘Smart’ motorway with a permanent hard shoulder and variable speed limits on gantries across the lanes. The speed limits are often irrelevant because this stretch of road commonly resembles a four-lane car park. It was while stationary in the second lane of this section recently that the Badger’s opinion about other types of Smart motorway became unshakeable. These other types are ‘dynamic’, where the hard shoulder is opened for vehicles at peak times, and ‘all-lane running’ where there is no hard shoulder. What caused this firming of opinion? Simply being involved in a minor collision which, as this crash map shows, is a frequent occurrence on this stretch of motorway.

As four lanes of traffic crept forward after being stationary for a few minutes, the Badger moved forward a short distance in the second lane coming to a halt when the traffic stopped again. There was a loud bang, the vehicle shuddered and lurched forward, and the Badger’s passenger uttered some choice words. The 1 series BMW behind had driven into the back of the car. The Badger indicated to pull over onto the hard shoulder and the BMW followed, a daunting manoevure given that a 40-tonne lorry behind the BMW obscured the moving traffic in the first lane.

On the hard shoulder, the damage was inspected, details were exchanged, and both drivers expressed some relief at being off the main carriageway. Damage was restricted to paint scuffs to the Badger’s rear bumper, and the radiator grill and a headlight glass on the BMW. The BMW driver said that as the traffic moved off, they had been momentarily distracted by a flash in their rear-view mirror and had not seen the Badger’s vehicle stop until it was too late. As we chatted, traffic on the carriageways picked up speed  and we both felt vulnerable as large lorries thundered by.

Afterwards, the Badger was thankful that this wasn’t a ‘dynamic’ or ‘all-lane running’ motorway because the experience would have been much worse. This M25 stretch was to be upgraded to ‘all lane running’ but the upgrade has been paused, at least for the short term.  The Badger’s minor incident cemented a feeling that UK motorways without hard shoulders do nothing to minimise the anxiety or enhance the safety of those involved in traffic incidents. Ever more ‘Smart’ traffic systems to feed the altar of efficient vehicle flow at the expense of personal safety does not feel right. Indeed, if the pause to upgrading this section of the M25 to ‘all lane running’ is ultimately lifted then it will be a travesty for common sense and ultimately an expensive mistake.

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