You might have heard of ‘smart motorways’. Their innocuous name conjures up images of intelligent traffic management that massages the flow of cars and lorries to reduce congestion and shrink journey times.
Yet the reality might not be so cosy and motorists could be sleepwalking into an Orwellian nightmare that will criminalise previously law-abiding drivers.
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Speed limits – the current position
We all accept the need for speed limits, understanding that there has to be some restriction on personal freedom for the greater good. That is, I hope, a given.
But within that framework there has always been an understanding that there has to be some flexibility: the motorist who strays to 31mph in a city limit isn’t necessarily deliberately breaking the law; they are far more likely to have fallen prey to a moment of inattention.
This is why the Association of Chief Police Officers (now the National Police Chiefs Council) recommended that all police forces adopt a guideline that speeding motorists should only be prosecuted if they exceed the speed limit by 10% plus 2mph. So anyone travelling at less than 80mph on a motorway would be ignored and left to travel along some of the safest roads in the world in peace.
Not any more.
Is your Council using CCTV to issue speeding fines?
A ‘smart motorway’ uses “technology to manage congestion” according to the UK government’s GOV.UK website.
This might involve activating the hard shoulder as another traffic lane, using overhead gantry signs to warn of impending hazards, and dynamic speed limits that are automatically calculated at times of peak congestion to soothe the flow of traffic.
Again, I think we can agree that these are laudable aims, sensibly implemented, can’t we? But, as is so often the case, the devil is in the detail.
Dispelling speeding myths
The small print
The trouble is that the previously flexible attitude towards the motorway speed limit is, like ACPO itself, defunct. So the modern breed of speed cameras being installed across the smart motorway network were originally painted grey to camouflage them from the motorist - although the government confirmed that all speed cameras must be painted yellow by October 2016. They can also monitor up to five lanes of traffic at a time.
The HADECS 3 (Highway Agency Digital Enforcement Camera System 3) also has zero tolerance built in as standard.
So a driver who strays over the speed limit by as little as one mph will now face a £100 fine, three penalty points on their licence, and increased car insurance premiums for the next five years.
A machine has no discretion to consider the road conditions, weather, and time of day; if you speed, you can expect to get a surprise in the post.
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Are cameras being used on smart motorways now?
They are already in use on stretches of the M25, M62, M6 and M4/M5 and the plan is to extend their range to cover 300 miles of motorway in total, including the M1, M3, M4, M5, M6, and M23.
And that urban myth that they aren’t turned on unless there is a reduced speed limit in place? Sorry, it is just that, an urban myth.
The speed cameras are working on the M62 between junctions 25 and 30 at all times, and other motorways are believed to be considering doing the same – if they haven’t already done so.
Read our tips for dealing with aggressive drivers
What advice are drivers being given?
The smart motorway webpage gives the following advice when driving on a smart motorway:
- Never drive under a red “X”.
- Keep to the speed limit shown on the gantries.
- A solid white line indicates the hard shoulder – don’t drive in it unless directed.
- A broken white line indicates a normal running lane.
- Use the refuge areas for emergencies if there’s no hard shoulder.
- Put your hazard lights on if you break down.
A very real concern here is the lack of a hard shoulder in the event of an emergency or breakdown.
Emergency refuge areas are provided as a place of safety for you and your car, but they can be up to 2.5km apart, which will leave you stranded in the event of a catastrophic incident.
If you cannot make your way to one under your own power, then you and your passengers should leave your car as soon as it is safe to do so, and wait behind the safety barrier for help to arrive.
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What does the future hold?
There is some good news: as previously mentioned, the government confirmed that all speed cameras must be painted yellow by October 2016.
Also, plans by Bedfordshire police to turn on all their cameras as an alternative source of revenue have been blocked, with the Treasury confirming that any money raised would go into its bank account rather than that of the police.
However, the threat remains. While the road safety angle is being touted as the reason for them, there remains a sneaking suspicion that they are being seen as another stealth tax on the motorist, with the government reaping the rewards.
Read our motorway driving tips
What can I do?
Well, the simple answer is to drive within the speed limit - though we do cover your options more thoroughly here: How to beat the smart motorway
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