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The smart alecs who gave us death-trap motorways


A WHILE back, some lamebrain in the transport business had a bright idea: ‘I know – let’s scrap the hard shoulder on motorways. Rather than spending money building extra carriageways, we’ll get rid of the safety lane and allow traffic to use it!’  

You can imagine the high-fives, congratulatory backslaps and whoops of ‘way to go!’ from fellow bonehead ‘experts’, followed by drinks all round in the pub that night after work. Genius, simply genius!  

However, as Captain Edmund Blackadder said in Blackadder Goes Forth on a different subject: ‘There was one tiny flaw in the plan . . . it was bollocks.’ 

Any normal, sane person – the ordinary driver in the M42 queue – could immediately see that scrapping the hard shoulder was an idea of breathtaking, not to say criminal, stupidity. The hard shoulder is there to provide a refuge for vehicles stranded after breaking down. Getting rid of it would mean cars and lorries potentially thundering into a breakdown scene at 70mph (or often more), while emergency vehicles would be unable to get there.  

Yet this appalling development was rolled out triumphantly in 2006 under the aegis of the Department for Transport as the dawn of ‘smart’ motorways. I’ve mentioned before on TCW that anything prefixed with ‘smart’ should be avoided like the plague or taken with a large pinch of salt. It invariably denotes unnecessary complication and expense. However, smart phones, smart watches, etc, don’t kill you. Smart motorways do.  

There are three types of these roads to hell. One is ‘controlled’, which has a permanent hard shoulder, but with variable speed limits. Then there is ‘dynamic’, where the hard shoulder can be opened at peak times. And finally we have ‘all-lane running’, where the hard shoulder has been permanently removed. It’s the latter two I’m talking about here.  

The Government answer to concerns about breakdowns in the absence of a hard shoulder was to install layby-style ‘emergency refuge areas’ at intervals along the carriageway, where broken-down vehicles could theoretically pull in. Again, a cretinous plan. Any sane person knows you can’t choose where you break down and a broken-down vehicle usually can’t move. But the development went ahead.  

The consequences were inevitable – people died. Various figures have been given for this tragic toll, but in 2020, a BBC Panorama investigation found 38 people had been killed in the previous five years on smart motorways. There have been more deaths since.  

Finally, the Government has announced an end to this madness, with the building of all new smart motorways – 14 in all – being scrapped. The current ones will remain, but will be fitted with extra refuge areas.  

As you can imagine, it’s a bit of a setback for the Government agency which oversees such major projects, the Department of Pointless Enterprises (DOPE). But the geniuses there have plenty more to be going on with. DOPE’s marquee programme – building a railway line from London to Birmingham costing north of £100billion which won’t be finished until around 2041 – is still going strong.  

And the jewel in its crown – demolishing dozens of reliable power stations and blotting the landscape with thousands of ugly, bird-mincing turbines that work only when the wind’s blowing – is shining brightly. Prepare yourself for smart blackouts.  

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Henry Getley
Henry Getley
Henry Getley is a freelance journalist.

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