17-01-2022 | By Robin Mitchell

Recently, the UK government has paused further development of smart motorways for five years after rising concerns with safety. What are smart motorways, why are they a disaster, and what does this tell us about integrating smart technologies?

What are smart motorways?

Smart motorways are motorways that utilise modern technologies to help ease traffic flow using adaptive road signs, variable speed limits, and opening up the hard shoulder. Under normal conditions, all lanes, including the hard shoulder, can be used for driving. The idea behind this is that the creation of an additional lane dramatically helps ease traffic. During a traffic incident, operators can monitor traffic, reduce the speed of vehicles, and close the hard shoulder so that broken down vehicles and emergency services can use the hard shoulder.

Such a system requires a complex network of cameras, controllers, and intelligent software systems, which is why their introduction has been slow. Furthermore, the use of adaptive speed signs requires new installations and infrastructure changes, but the time taken to do this is significantly less than trying to lay new lanes. Thus, smart motorways can convert pre-existing motorways into more efficient systems.

Why are smart motorways a disaster?

Despite the heavy use of technology and the ability to monitor traffic live, smart motorways have received backlash from a wide range of society. One of the biggest fears behind smart motorways is that opening the hard shoulder to high-speed traffic puts those who have broken down at the serious risk of death.

While nearby vehicles will easily avoid those broken down in the hard shoulder, those travelling at speed may not notice changes in the variable speed limit signs that indicate which lanes to use. Thus, a vehicle travelling at 70mph may not be able to stop in time after seeing the broken-down vehicle.

This scenario also occurs if changes to the motorway take too long. The time taken to report a broken-down vehicle and having the motorway update signs can take far too long, and this can lead to vehicles travelling at high speed down the hard shoulder.

Unfortunately, the risk to life has been very real, and it is believed that smart motorways have contributed to more than 63 deaths between 2015 and 2019. This figure does not include those between 2019 and 2022 (the current year), and all of these deaths have been avoidable had the hard shoulder remained a closed-off lane.

UK government halting development of smart motorways

In light of concerns around smart motorways, the UK government has suspended their development for the next five years while research and data is gathered around their use. However, only motorways built before 2020 will be looked into for safety concerns, and those already in construction will be completed. This brings a total of 57 miles worth of smart motorway development actually being halted.

Furthermore, an additional £390m of funding will be provided to construct new refuge areas and integrate better detection technologies. But despite new smart motorway development being paused, currently built ones will continue to operate, and areas that have removed their hard shoulder will not reinstate them.

What does this tell us about infrastructure and smart technologies?

It is understandable why smart motorways were thought of as a good idea on paper, and they could ease traffic congestion while eliminating the need to construct wider motorways. Furthermore, smart infrastructure allows for remote monitoring, which can then be tied to emergency services to provide improved responses to accidents.

However, the real world is not ideal, and smart motorways are clearly not a good idea in practice. The problem isn’t that hard shoulders should remain blocked, but that technology currently used in motorways cannot handle real-time changes in traffic. For example, a smart hard shoulder should not be reliant on signs separated by several hundred meters, but instead, use special lights integrated into the road that make it obvious when it is closed.

When integrating smart solutions, the safety aspect must always be considered, and installing smart technologies for the sake of integrating technology should be discouraged. In the case of smart motorways, smart motorway construction will likely continue, and the idea of a permanent hard shoulder will fade from memory.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.