How smart is smart?

At least the snow has timed it right for once: most of us aren’t allowed to leave the house and now most of us can’t leave the house. It’s probably a good thing because in these kinds of conditions everyday actions can be treacherous. Just take driving; it’s in conditions like this that you wouldn’t really want to be using the motorway unless you had too. Alas, the roads seem almost as busy as they would in normal circumstances and since we are a crowded little island just a bit of traffic can cause quite a lot of bother. Fortunately the government don’t feel they are quite as monstrously thick as they look or sound. How can they be when they continue to back schemes like smart motorways, designed to moderate and control traffic and provide a safe environment in which every road user has the opportunity to be killed in horrific circumstances, some comfort coming at least in the knowledge that it was a ‘smart’ death.

Smart motorways have been around for over a decade now and while a couple of other countries have tentatively tried to adopt them (notably countries with a far lower population density, such as Australia) it says something that most sane governments won’t go near them even with a particularly long and shitty stick. There are some elements which make sense, I suppose. They try to give you an indication of your journey time at frequent intervals, though the fact that that time seems to stay the same for quite long periods suggests that it’s less the time and more the traffic that needs addressing. Smart motorways also flash up variable speed limits to get you to slow down: for instance when you have already gone down to 25mph they will intuitively tell you to go no faster than 40mph, which I think you’ll agree is the kind of help that can only be described as priceless. Almost as priceless as when you are informed that the reason you’ve ground to a halt is because there has been a ‘report of debris’ or a ‘report of pedestrians’. Frankly, anyone stupid enough to walk onto a motorway deserves to get what’s very likely to be coming their way.

The real problem comes with the ‘smart’ decision to use the hard shoulder to ease the traffic when times are hard. Let me briefly guide you through the lane system of a large British motorway in an attempt to illustrate the breathtaking lack of wit to be found at the core of this issue. If we’re being technical all but the furthest left lane should only be used for overtaking but let’s just accept that it’s usually a bit more complicated than that. To the far right we have what is commonly known as ‘the fast lane’. This lane is for people who want to use the motorway for its most primal and practical function: getting somewhere fast. The fast lane is generally filled with vehicles who want to get a shift on and vehicles who genuinely believe that the 70mph limit is there to be stuck to. The latter therefore enormously frustrate the former. Presumably this is in the hope they are making the motorway safer, when in fact the opposite is true because instead they just fan the flame of impatience and rage and cause acts of shameless undertaking and scenes of road use you would normally only see in a particularly energetic Tom Cruise movie.

Next to the fast lane is the ‘third lane’. This is chiefly populated by drivers who don’t have a clue about how motorways work. Many of them think that the third lane is the best place to just sit at slightly under 70mph and lumber along like it’s a Sunday afternoon in the countryside. This causes cars behind them to undertake and overtake as befits their mood, Naturally, third lane drivers think they are driving perfectly and it is everyone else who’s doing the wrong way. The ‘second lane’ is the lane that no one really wants to be in: too slow for some and too fast for others; but evidently not too fast for anyone who doesn’t know how to use the third lane. The second lane is also used for the most achingly slow spectacle that the motorway can offer – the dance of the overtaking lorry. For this to occur a lorry travelling at 61.4mph must grind its way past another lorry travelling at 61.2mph. This manoeuvre will slow down the entire flow of traffic and will also ultimately prove pointless as both lorry drivers will find themselves filling empty Fanta bottles with piss, three spaces apart in a vast queue on the M20, an hour later.

Then we have the ‘slow lane’. This is used by three kinds of vehicles; those joining or leaving the motorway, lorries being overtaken by other lorries and pensioners with cataracts who should have given up driving years ago but insist on their independence as well as their right to drive at 26mph on a motorway. In rush hour. One of the least fun places to be on the motorway (bearing in mind the only fun place on a motorway is when it’s empty) is hemmed in on the slow lane in the dark and driving rain, fruitlessly waiting for a convoy of speeding haulage to give you a bit of breathing space. It doesn’t matter where you get, as long as you get out soon. And it’s these four lanes (if that) that we are afforded to get us where we’re going and most of the time, miraculously, they work. But this does all depend on the DWR number (Driving Wankers Ratio) and volume of traffic. In some places such as the ridiculously enlarged stretch of the A1 just south of Peterborough there is rarely enough traffic to justify a dual carriageway, let alone a four lane monster, but get stuck on the M25 at the wrong time and you’d think someone was about to drop the bomb. Whichever the scenario at least we always have the hard shoulder; the best option when you have no other options.

Unless you’re smart. Because if you’re smart like a smart motorway you don’t need a hard shoulder. I mean, breaking down is for idiots. We’re only talking about thousands of heavy objects travelling at fast speeds and surely anyone can cope with that! Having enjoyed the experience before I can assure you being stuck on the hard shoulder at a busy time of day is not something to be recommended, but it still beats having no hard shoulder at all. As police chiefs insist that smart motorways are dangerous and responsible for many unnecessary deaths the government counter with the highly implausible suggestion that they are “as safe as, or safer than, the conventional ones”. To any clear thinking person of middling intelligence or higher this is clearly absolute bollocks and the kind of thing that someone would say if they had already made far too many blunders and knew it was too late to back down. As the Department of Transport rolls out their planned expansion of smart motorways more and more people are being crushed, smashed, squished and splashed across the tarmac of the hard shoulders that are being used for moving traffic to alleviate our congestion crisis. It doesn’t take a blind 90 year old weaving from lane to lane to tell you that the whole concept is galactically stupid and irresponsible and to have the cheek to call it ‘smart’ somehow makes it even worse. Anyway, there’s snow out there and I’m only thinking of you, being safe out there in the din and dirt of our busy road network. You drive safely out there and keep an eye on these smart motorways, because they’re getting dumber by the day. And for the love of God get out of the third lane once in a while.

G B Hewitt. 24.01.2021

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