Smart motorways & commercial vehicles

If you’re running commercial vehicles, then you have a duty of care to both their drivers and the public. Part of this duty of care means updating your working practices to reflect changes in circumstances. With this in mind, UK leaders in quality used trucks, Walker Movements share their guide to what you need to know about smart motorways.

Smart motorways are here to stay

If you’ve been holding out on getting to grips with smart motorways because you’ve been hoping that they’ll just go away, then there’s bad news. Nothing is guaranteed but all the signs are that smart motorways are here to stay.

Right now, the main aim of the smart motorways programme is to improve journey times and reduce accidents. Going forward, however, smart motorways are likely to be used to allow vehicles to have some level of autonomy.

Only time will tell what this is going to mean in practice. The government has already expressed a desire to implement ALKS (Automated Lane-Keeping System). At present, it appears to be planning to treat ALKS-usage as “self-driving”. This may, however, change to reflect concerns from other stakeholders.

It does, however, seem clear that the government sees autonomous vehicles as being key to the UK’s future. In fact, it probably isn’t too much of a stretch to say that the government is probably especially interested in autonomous commercial vehicles. They could potentially have a major role to play in easing the issues caused by a shortage of drivers.

Understanding smart motorways

If you want to develop a strategy to cope with smart motorways, possibly even to embrace them, then it helps to understand them. Smart motorways are sensor-equipped, networked motorways. The sensors capture data about traffic. The network connections then pass this to server rooms where computers work out the best strategies to keep traffic flowing.

At present, this typically involves using variable speed limits and/or using the hard shoulder as an extra lane. With “MM1” smart motorways, the hard shoulder is opened as necessary to ease congestion. With “MM2” smart motorways, the hard shoulder is eliminated and used as an extra lane.

The variable speed limits are indicated by means of signs on a gantry. If there are no specific indicators to the contrary, the national speed limit is held to apply. With M1 smart motorways, there is also a sign to indicate whether or not the hard shoulder is in use as an extra lane. Other signs may be used as needed, for example, if a lane is closed.

In short, from a driver’s perspective, using smart motorways is essentially about following dynamic signs rather than static rules. The basic idea is that you stay in your lane and let the algorithms do their work.

Educating drivers on smart motorways

The real challenge on smart motorways appears to be less the issue of driving and more the issue of knowing what to do if there is a problem. In this context, the first point to make is that you should always be doing as much as possible to minimize the possibility that you will get into trouble. This is where daily vehicle checks come into play (and make sure there is enough fuel).

Remember, however, that it’s not just vehicles that can have breakdowns. Humans can have health issues too, both physical and mental. All employers should be making it clear to employees that calling in sick is definitely an option. In fact, it’s generally by far the safest option. This is particularly true in the haulage industry.

If, however, the worst does happen, then drivers need to know how to deal with it. If they get forewarning that something is amiss, then they should try to exit the smart motorway if possible. If they can’t then the first point to check is whether the smart motorway has a hard shoulder. If it does, is it in use as a hard shoulder or as a lane? 

If the former, then use the existing procedure. If the latter, then try to reach an emergency refuge area or at least get as close as possible to the nearest boundary. Put the hazard lights on, exit the vehicle if possible and alert Highways England as soon as possible. There are roadside emergency phones in designated ERAs plus drivers can use their mobiles.

The practicalities of smart motorways

Like much of life, there is something of a disconnect between the theory of smart motorways and the real-world practice. The theory behind them is fairly solid. Statistics do support the idea that smart motorways are both faster and safer than regular ones. The practice, however, depends on drivers cooperating with the algorithms.

Also, like much of life, most drivers will go along with expected behaviours. Some drivers, however, will try to “game the system” by trying to move into different lanes. The irony of this is that, at best, it keeps their overall speed the same but wastes fuel and adds wear and tear. Drivers, however, are human and humans don’t always act logically.

Currently, this behaviour is not technically against the rules of the road. What’s more, it’s hard to see how the government could legislate against it, although they may find a way. It is, however, a major potential safety hazard both to the people doing it and to the drivers around them.

This means that on smart motorways it is more important than ever for drivers to keep a safe distance from those around them. What’s more, that safe distance will need to be adapted to reflect the prevailing weather conditions.

The future potential of smart motorways

One of the benefits of smart motorways is that they encourage fuel-efficient driving. You can therefore put some of the money you save on fuel into improving your fleet. In particular, you might want to invest in ALKS as early as possible.

This could allow your drivers to get some welcome respite during periods of slow-moving traffic. It would not replace proper rest breaks but could supplement them. Potentially, this could offer significant benefits for your drivers’ mental health.