What are ‘smart motorways’ and what do they mean for motorcyclists?


Published on 8 September 2015 by Gill

The scheme to recreate England’s motorways as ‘Smart Motorways’ continues at a pace.

One of the busiest sections of the M6 in Cheshire gets underway shortly as the M1 from Lutterworth to Northampton is completed, along with the M3 in Surrey. What we see is mile upon mile of 50mph speed restrictions and narrow lanes. 

What is going on, however, is the total reconstruction of each of these sections of motorway to make them ready for the transport technology and connectivity of the future. There is so much more to this project than just ‘all lane running’, although let’s not forget that that alone can add almost 30% additional traffic capacity as it is.

So, what’s in it for today’s rider? In a nutshell it is the removal of miles of the many different forms of steel safety fence and their replacement with continuous concrete barriers. I have written about this in the past and I will not repeat too much, but it is fair to suggest that most riders would find the prospect of a collision with a continuous concrete wall, while wearing a riding suit, gloves and good boots a much less awful prospect than the same collision with those steel ‘Z’ section posts. This situation has improved further still.

In many tests done here and abroad looking at collision outcomes for cars, trucks and motorcycles with various barrier types, one thing which seems to almost always occur for a rider mounted on a motorcycle at the time of impact is that an arm drops onto the top surface of the fence or barrier.Where this arm contacts the top of a ‘Z’ post the damage to the arm is considerable, as you may imagine.

If you look at the new concrete barriers below, installed this summer on the M1 from the M6 junction south to just north of Northampton, you will observe a strange purple pipe, secured to the top of the barrier.

This has a prime function of carrying the cables for the driver information displays, which are positioned at points along this stretch as a feature of the “Smart Motorway”. The pipe is rigid plastic, but plastic nonetheless – not the top of a rusty old steel ‘Z’ section post.

It is my view that this combination of concrete barrier with a rounded plastic coping, from the newly created Highways England, must be the most motorcycle- and motorcyclist-friendly central reserve barrier that I have seen. These new “Smart Motorways” will enable and bring many benefits, most of which we don’t yet understand but until then they offer riders a far safer safety fence.

By Graeme Hay, BMF Government Relations Executive