I have been known to have the odd rant about so-called smart motorways. Putting it bluntly, I don’t like them.

In the first instance, we in Cheshire, had to put up with month after month and mile after mile of dangerous narrow lanes while the work was carried out to convert the M6 to a smart motorway along with all the others around the country.

Then, when built, they had two fatal flaws.

For those who don’t know, I refer you to the RAC website which says: “A smart motorway is a section of a motorway that uses traffic management methods to increase capacity and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas.

“These methods include using the hard shoulder as a running lane and using variable speed limits to control the flow of traffic.

“Highways England developed smart motorways to manage traffic in a way that minimises environmental impact, cost and time to construct by avoiding the need to build additional lanes.”

So there you have it, it’s all about cost. Now I’ve no problems with variable speed limits, I actually think they are a good thing, but it is the other element that bothers – the removal of the hard shoulder turning it into a running lane for traffic.

So what happens if you have the misfortune to break down on a smart motorway? I saw this in action for myself only a couple of weeks ago.

It probably wasn’t the smartest idea to drive to Cornwall while the country was being battered by Storm Dennis but that’s exactly what I did. Yes, the driving conditions were really bad but probably because of the atrocious weather, the motorways were relatively quiet and most drivers had adjusted their driving to accommodate the reduced visibility.

Which is just as well because a couple of miles into the journey, in the smart motorway section of the M6 in Cheshire, I noticed cars in front of me suddenly swerving around.

And there it was, a broken down vehicle in what should have been the hard shoulder but actually in a running lane. The driver had pulled over as far as he could to the left but was still stuck out in traffic.

I managed to safely get round him and I sincerely hope he was OK. But it was the perfect example of everything wrong with smart motorways.

So here’s my view. If the powers that be are going to remove hard shoulders from motorways, provision should have been made for enough emergency refuge areas where drivers in trouble can get their cars out of running traffic. And before even considering making a motorway smart – with all-lane running, the smart radar system that can detect a stopped vehicle within seconds should have been installed before any motorway was converted to ‘smart’.

But there is hope at hand.

According to the BBC, the government says it wants to “raise the bar” on smart motorway safety.

The first step will be to stop the use of hard shoulders for traffic in busy periods on so-called ‘dynamic’ running lanes. This is where the left hand lane is sometimes open to traffic and sometimes it’s closed and is used as a hard shoulder.

On motorways where the hard shoulder has been removed entirely, there will be an increase in places for vehicles to stop in an emergency.

Announcing the plan to improve smart motorway safety, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said he had been “greatly concerned by a number of deaths on smart motorways. He added: “The overall evidence shows that in most ways smart motorways are as safe or, safer than conventional ones – but they are not in every way.”

I think we have more than enough evidence for that. A Freedom of Information request sent by the BBC’s Panorama to Highways England revealed that in one section of the M25, outside London, the number of near misses had risen 20-fold since the hard shoulder was removed in April, 2014.

In the five years before the road was converted into a smart motorway, there were just 72 near misses. In the five years after, there were 1,485.
And I very much suspect statistics such as those will be replicated across the entire smart motorway if my own experience is anything to go by.

In addition to abolishing the “confusing” dynamic hard shoulder, the government has said it will also reduce the distance between places to stop in an emergency to three quarters of a mile where possible.

I find it difficult to conceive that anyone thought it was a good idea to remove hard shoulders from motorways and not put in place an adequate number of safety refuges but under the new proposals, in future schemes motorists should typically reach a stop every 45 seconds at 60mph. And the maximum distance apart will be one mile.

The government’s plan also includes measures to speed up the deployment of technology to detect ‘stopped vehicles’ (as I said earlier, this should have been done before motorways became ‘smart’); making emergency areas more visible; introducing more traffic signs giving the distance to the next place to stop in an emergency and a £5m to a communications campaign to increase awareness of how smart motorways work.

Apparently, Mr Shapps acknowledged the changes would cost ‘quite a lot of money’, adding it could reach “hundreds of millions of pounds”. To be brutally honest, this is money that should have been spent before and during construction, not after the event.