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I live close to the UK’s M27 motorway and I’ve watched with dismay the major roadworks and ensuing disruptions caused by the conversion of a nearby section into what is termed a smart motorway.  This conversion is set to continue until spring 2021.  There are miles of major roadworks, coned-off lanes, and unexpected lane mergers, all of which are open invitations to accidents.

When the smart motorway concept was first mooted in 2006 for parts of the UK’s motorway network, I queried why.  To quote the government organisation responsible for ‘operating, maintaining and improving’ our motorways, Highways England, smart motorways use pioneering technology to:

  • monitor traffic levels;
  • change the speed limit to smooth traffic flow, reduce frustrating stop-start driving and improve journey times;
  • activate warning signs to alert you to traffic jams and hazards up ahead;
  • close lanes – for example to allow emergency vehicles through.

These benefits are achieved by an array of roadside CCTV cameras and large overhead gantries carrying lane closure and recommended lane speed information.  Basically, a smart motorway is an attempt to regulate traffic flow by feeding real-time traffic conditions to a computer wherein flow-analysis programs determine optimum speeds to get you to where you want to go.  But, why use CCTV cameras, overhead displays and dynamic flow analysis to do this?  There’s a much easier, and cheaper, solution.

UK smart motorway, somewhere in England.
This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC

In the mid-1990s, I lived and worked in the heart of Silicon Valley in California.  Silicon Valley is the world’s largest concentration of high-tech companies and is a densely-populated area that fosters innovative technology based on the application of electronics; hardware, software and peopleware.  For me, Silicon Valley starts at Stanford just south of San Francisco and finishes at San Jose, some 22 miles further south.  Along the way, there are company facilities and residential areas situated 7 or 8 miles either side of the Stanford/San Jose line in places such as Cupertino, Mountain View (where I lived), Santa Clara and Milpitas, all home to many successful high-tech companies and a magnet for start-ups.

US Route 101 freeway sign
This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC

The major highway running through the middle of Silicon Valley is part of the 1,540-mile Pacific Coast Highway running down from the Canadian border in Washington, passing through Oregon and then continuing through California until it reaches Los Angeles.  Known as US Route 101, or more commonly as ‘one-oh-one’, the highway carries a lot of traffic, especially in Silicon Valley.  Route 101 is the backbone of Silicon Valley and between Stanford and San Jose, each side of the highway has been expanded to four lanes plus a High-Occupancy Vehicle, HOV, lane for any vehicle carrying more than one person (to encourage ride shares).

Even with four lanes either side, 101 in Silicon Valley can become very crowded.  To get from anywhere to anywhere in the Valley usually requires some travel on 101 and given that the Valley never sleeps, 101 is always busy.

When I moved to Mountain View, my motorway/freeway driving techniques were based on the UK system – drive on the inside or middle lane but don’t hog the middle lane, and only overtake on an outside lane.  What I observed on 101 was that the rules were different: drive in whatever lane suits you for speed and congestion and, once there, stay there until it is time to exit.  This meant that other vehicles were both overtaking me (on an outside lane) and undertaking me (on an inside lane) but since everyone knew the rules, it worked and was self-regulating.  If your chosen lane began to slow down as more drivers entered it, then so you switched to a faster lane, either inside or outside, if available.  The only computer-controlled traffic flow was Stop/Go lights on the entry ramps to regulate traffic entering the freeway during rush hours.

The point about this is that, as I said, it worked, not only in Silicon Valley but on many other freeways I drove on in the USA.  Nowhere did I ever see smart motorways as defined and implemented by Highways England and when the idea of smart motorways was first proposed for UK trunk roads, my immediate reaction was to say, ‘First, send a team of road-traffic specialists to the USA for three months to study how self-regulation based on legalised undertaking as well as overtaking works before wasting a lot of money.’  I have a strong suspicion this never happened.  Today, on the BBC website, there’s finally an admission that what are known as dynamic smart motorways (ones where the hard shoulder is brought into service if needed) don’t work.  Drivers don’t understand the rules and become confused as to whether the hard shoulder is available or not.  Highways England’s Chief Executive, Jim O’Sullivan, has said, ‘Motorists did not understand them and there were no plans to build anymore.’  My reaction to this is, ‘At last; common sense prevails but why bother to build anymore “regular” smart motorways?  They are not necessary.  There is an easier solution.’ (A regular smart motorway is where the hard shoulder is always open thus effectively creating an extra lane.)

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC

I often wonder how decisions such as, ‘Let’s build smart motorways,’ are made – head in the sand, I reckon.  I have the same thoughts about Brexit.  It was obvious in 2016 after the Referendum that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would become the major point of contention and, at the time, I thought why not immediately send a team of politicians, lawyers and civil servants to Norway for three months to see how the non-EU Norwegians have solved their relationship with Sweden, a land-bordered EU country?  Similarly, send another team to non-EU Switzerland with the same objective.  (Switzerland borders five other countries, four of which are members of the EU.)  Was either team ever created and, if so, what was their respective findings?  Again, my suspicion is this didn’t happen which is why we are in the Brexit mess we are now in.  But, that’s another blog.