Cheaper but more dangerous ‘smart highways’ in the UK

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The British government is taking a break in the development of its “Smart highways”. “Although our initial data shows that smart highways are among the safest roads in the UK, it is crucial that we go further to ensure that people feel safer using them ”, the Minister of Transport, Grant Shapps, said on Wednesday January 12 in the morning. His ministry will study data from the past five years related to security on these special lanes to judge the way forward.

600 kilometers of smart highways

These smart highways were introduced on a trial basis in 1995, before spreading in the 2000s. They now cover 600 kilometers. Their principle is simple: highway managers can open access to the emergency lane when traffic becomes too intense. On some sections, emergency lanes have even been eliminated and emergency stopping spaces have been built to allow vehicles to park there.

To avoid accidents if a vehicle breaks down, the highways are constantly monitored and drivers are warned of lane closure by electronic panels distributed throughout the road. The authorities’ motivation for these smart highways is above all economic: widening a highway to add a lane costs 50 million euros per kilometer, against 3 to 9 million for the deployment of these smart highways. They would therefore save more than 1.5 billion euros.

High profile deaths

However, the end of their deployment is linked to security issues. Several deaths have been widely documented in the media. Particularly those of Alexandru Murgeanu and Jason Mercer in June 2019. The two men had stopped to establish a report following a slight collision. Behind them, a truck driver did not see that their lane had been closed to traffic and therefore crashed into their vehicles, killing them both instantly. Since then, Claire Mercer, Jason’s wife, has campaigned to end the existence of these smart highways.

Between 2014 and 2019, thirty-eight people died on these smart highways and the number of near-miss collisions was multiplied by twenty on one of these sections. Even if the authorities assure them that they are safe, many drivers have testified that they have been in danger because their lane does not automatically close following their breakdown. Others are calling for the construction of more emergency stop spaces, deemed too far from each other.

Asked in October 2019 by a parliamentary committee, Jim O’Sullivan, the boss of Highways England, the public entity in charge of the operation and maintenance of English motorways, had recognized their difficulty of use. He had estimated that the sections “Dynamic”, where the emergency lane can also be used as a traffic lane, are “Simply too complicated to use: some people stop there when they are open to traffic, others use it out of habit while they are stopped”.

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