If you would like to amuse yourself for a few minutes, ask a few members of your driving team what a Smart Motorway actually is….you may be surprised and find that not many will know the answer.

Why is this? Perhaps we’ve all been bombarded with so much change in legislation, new acronyms to learn etc. that we are only retaining the information we need at that moment of time. Sometimes even that is buried away deep in our minds – and lost!

So let us assist you so if anyone asks you the simple question – what is a smart motorway, you can shock them with the correct answer.

Our thanks to David Dixon for the photo, used under a creative commons licence

Smart Motorways were introduced back in 2005, as a method of easing congestion on busy sections of the motorway network. They use a system known as ATM or Active Traffic Management which has a basic principle that if all traffic flows at the same moderate speed, staying in lane, avoiding lane changing, then the traffic will flow smoothly with less hold-ups.

In addition if all the traffic moves at the same slower speed the theory is there are less accidents and less of the dreaded stop start flow. The proof of the pudding is the experiment using the M42 between J3A and J7 which has been hailed as a complete success and has led to more schemes being introduced on the M6 and M25.

A report by Highways England concluded some interesting findings, including showing a significant decrease in journey times. In addition, the report indicated a reduction in accidents from more than five per month to an average of 1.5 per month for the period of the trial. Importantly, there were none caused by the use of the hard shoulder as the ‘congestion lane’. Fuel consumption was also reduced between 4% and 10%.

Unfortunately, some drivers believe that the rules are there for other people and refuse to adhere to what the system requires of them. While speed cameras can go some way to controlling speeds, there are other problems that are harder to police.

Switching lanes to try and avoid queues only exacerbates the problem as the traffic behind has to slow down to let the vehicle in. And most of us have experienced travelling down the hard shoulder lane for the next exit only to see the person in front cut back onto the main carriageway – so effectively they’ve shortcut the system to ‘get ahead’ of everyone else. This is a false economy as it has been proved many times that swapping lanes to try and speed up your journey is rarely a successful exercise.

Some of the criticisms of Smart Motorways are that they are a cheap solution to providing additional road space due to the use of the hard shoulder and that they do nothing to reduce the amount of traffic on the roads. It could be argued that the idea is not to reduce the traffic – while this is a highly laudable goal – but to at least try and manage it better and make journeys on some of our busiest motorways just that little bit more bearable for everyone using them.

Whichever argument is right, Smart Motorways are clearly here to stay.