• Smart motorways are dumb: Tell Me I’m Wrong

    Driven on a motorway lately? Likely you have. Equally likely you’ve been trundling along one of the interminable sections of the network currently undergoing the lengthy transformation to ‘smart’ status. And counting the days until the endless 50 limits are cleared away and we’ll be free to accelerate back to the heady heights of the 70mph national speed limit.

    Remote control for motorways now a reality

    Remote control for motorways now a reality

    Only you probably won’t be able to. Because if you’ve also used sections now fully ‘smart’ you’ll know the reality is trigger happy gantry operators all too keen to issue speed limit slapdowns, seemingly on a whim. Enforced without mercy by their now fully operationalHADECS 3 cameras.The title of this series is ‘Tell Me I’m Wrong’ of course and I truly would like to be proven ill-informed about the future of intelligent traffic management. But as an end-user I’m frustrated and depressed.

    First up, the motorway network is choked with these schemes which, by their nature, tie-up significant lengths of road, take a huge amount of time and cost an absolute fortune. I regularly toddle up and down the M1 to the folks back home and since that 20-mile stretch from Junctions 28-31 has been in place the journey time has increased – on a good run – by at least half an hour. Trundling along I have plenty of time to mull over the cost, estimated as up to £225m according to Highways England, and the end result. Which will probably still see me trundling along at 50mph when the damned thing is completed and the gantries are in operation, whether that’s peak time or seemingly arbitrarily applied to an empty, after hours motorway.

    Swing vote
    At least the threatened 60mph limit on this section has been rejected after 90-plus per cent of respondents to a government consultation flicked the vees at the idea. And yet, in a control room somewhere, someone without this level of public scrutiny will still be able to enact it at the flick of a switch.

    "You didn't listen did you, punk..."

    “You didn’t listen did you, punk…”

    £225m on signs, lights and policing by camera at a time when flesh and blood traffic cops find their numbers slashed and meagre resources amalgamated and stretched over larger and larger areas. I was chatting with a friend in the business the other day and the picture sounded grim indeed. Easy as it is to pin three points on someone for doing 55mph in a temporary 50 from a control centre it takes boots on the ground to deal with the tail-gaters, the brake checkers, the texters or – in a case he mentioned – people openly swigging from bottles of vodka as they drive along.The problem with smart motorways from a user’s perspective is of credibility of the information and black and white enforcement that comes with them. “Safe roads, reliable journeys, informed travellers” is the Highways Agency slogan covering this programme but in my experience they’re failing on all three. An IAM survey reveals 71 per cent drivers questioned are scared of breaking down on motorways where hard shoulders can alternate between safe refuge and live lane at the flick of a remote switch. Who can blame them – even when hard shoulders were unequivocally meant to be places of shelter people still managed to plough into stranded vehicles.

    Here be dragons
    Reliable journeys? Well, my M1 experience suggests ‘reliably slower’ would be the best appraisal of that one. And informed travellers? That only works if the information is pertinent, useful and reliable. I recently travelled for a quarter of the circumference of the M25 at an enforced 40mph with the promise of ‘Animals on the road’ to see nothing. Was it a single lost cat? A herd of migrating Wildebeest? May as well have said ‘Here be dragons’ for all the use it was, and yet there we were, cowed into a pointless low limit for 30 miles. Yesterday I saw ‘Danger – oncoming vehicles!’ on the M4. Pretty serious warning that one. Were there any? Go on, guess…

    Disruption - and cost - is huge for 'upgrades'

    Disruption – and cost – is huge for ‘upgrades’

    Same with the variable speed limits. Here I can understand the logic; it may be frustrating to cruise along an apparently empty motorway and be slowed to 50mph. But I’ll accept that someone has the bigger picture and by regulating the traffic that’s moving you can mitigate against that which is stationary, much as one would in a traffic jam. Unless you’re one of those plonkers who believes no space greater than three inches should ever appear between bumpers.But it’s getting daft. The other day within the space of four gantries I went from NSL to 40 to 50 and back to NSL. For what? They were all in sight of each other and there was no broken down car, no obstruction or any other apparent reason. Just a load of people slamming on their brakes and trying to scrub off 30mph without collecting an Audi in their bootlid.

    Duty of care
    From a driver’s perspective it doesn’t take long to reach the conclusion the signs more frequently than not cry wolf, inevitably meaning the one time the warning might actually be pertinent you’d ignored it. If the lives of the people in that broken down car on the ‘hard shoulder’ depend on fellow drivers respecting a red cross on a gantry you have a duty to make sure the rest of the information you’re presenting on them is credible too. If we’re not careful people will quickly become blind to anything other than an arbitrary, camera enforced number surrounded by a red border. And end up crashing into an oncoming herd of Wildebeest while obediently sticking by the posted limit.

    Cue stream of brake lights and frustration

    Cue stream of brake lights and frustration

    Funny isn’t it? The powers that be are willing decimate traffic cop numbers while investing millions in this traffic policing by camera. And cause untold disruption as it’s installed. And yet when Eric Pickles bans councils from using CCTV to issue parking fines and forces them to put wardens back on the beat he presents himself as a people’s champion. “Today the government is taking urgently needed action to ban this clear abuse of CCTV, which should be used to catch criminals, and not as a cash cow,” he said of the decision last year. Yet if you don’t slam on the brakes the moment the gantry flashes up a reduced limit your NIP will be in the post before you’ve even got home, as happened to someone in the PH office on the M25 just recently.Bring on those electronically leashed and autonomous cars I say. At least then we’ll have someone/something else to take the points if it misses the fact the gantry above just randomly went from a 70 limit to 20 and didn’t manage to slow up in time.