60 years of our love-hate relationship with the motorway

60 years of the M1 motorway

“Take it easy, motorist,” was the advice given to drivers by Ernest Marples as he officially opened the M1 motorway on this day in 1959.

“If in doubt, don’t,” he warned, as if to pre-empt the behaviour of motorists as they took to the motorway for the first time. In those days, of course, the speed limit wasn’t governed by legislation, simply by what a car could manage.

Perhaps more importantly, the top speed was limited by the courage and talent of the motorist. Accidents were commonplace, as drivers realised they lacked the skills of Messrs Hawthorn, Hill and Clark.

Less than five years later, Jack Sears hit 185mph in an AC Cobra Coupe GT on the M1, using the motorway to do a test run ahead of the Le Mans 24 Hours. As Sears said in an Autocar article, “many teams were using the motorway for test runs”, including Rootes Group, Jaguar and Aston Martin.

A 70mph speed limit was introduced in July 1967, although the legislation doesn’t appear to have been influenced by the antics of Sears in 1964.

Oh that motorway, ain’t it a thrill to be so free

Congestion on the M1 motorway

To mark the 60th anniversary of Britain’s first city to city motorway, the Guardian has published an article from October 1959, which is best read with the style of a Pathé newsreader in your head.

The 72 miles from London to Birmingham increased the length of Britain’s motorway network to 80 miles. Today, that figure is around 2,300 miles – less than 1 percent of the entire road network.

But the importance of the motorway network cannot be underestimated. Last year, motorways carried 69 billion vehicle miles of traffic – up 10.9 percent on the same period in 2008.

The Ministry of Transport estimated that an average of 14,000 vehicles a day would use the M1 between London and Birmingham in 1960, reducing casualties by 500 and saving 2.7 million hours of driving.

We’ve developed a kind of love-hate relationship with the motorway network, relying on it to reach our destination quickly, efficiently and without fuss. When the network delivers on its promise, we don’t give it a second thought.

But when something goes wrong – accidents, Bank Holiday traffic and congestion – we moan that the network is creaking at the seams and not fit for purpose. Visiting a motorway service area tends to give us something to moan about, too. Still, it makes a change from the weather.

Back in the 1960s, motorways were destinations in themselves. People would visit the three-lane ribbons of adventure that could move cars like a conveyor belt of shopping in a supermarket. Restaurants would cater for the motorway tourists, who’d watch the traffic go by behind huge expanses of glass. Those days are gone.

Riding down the motorway, cats eyes, cold meat pies

M1 motorway Redbourn

Today, the motorway is facing a period of change. Smart motorways are arguably the most controversial thing to hit the network since the 70mph speed limit, while a future of autonomous cars could change the way we use the roads forever.

Reading old newspaper reports makes for fascinating reading. In a separate Guardian article, the editorial slams the ‘slow progress’ of the construction programme and draws a comparison with Victorian railway promoters.

‘No one can say when the M1 will be finished,’ it grumbles, before highlighting the proposed expansion of the network, including, quite interestingly, the M3 stretching all the way to Exeter.

‘In an age of serious contemplation of travel to the moon it seems senseless that no British Government has yet devised means of enabling traffic to move more freely on the ground at home,’ it concludes.

We’ve since been to the moon and back – and have sent a car into space – but moving freely on the motorway seems out of reach to the beleaguered commuters on the M25, M1 and M6. Take it easy out there.

How to drive on a smart motorway

How to drive on a smart motorway

Just a couple of weeks after fines were introduced for ignoring a red ‘X’ sign, the government has updated its advice for driving on a smart motorway.

A smart motorway is a technology-enabled section of motorway that uses traffic management methods to control the flow of traffic, reduce congestion and improve journey times. 

In some cases, the hard shoulder is used as a ‘live’ running lane to increase capacity, with variable speed limits put in place to maintain a smooth flow of traffic.

Not everyone is a fan of smart motorways, with some motorists arguing that the absence of a hard shoulder makes them more dangerous than conventional motorways.

Highways England, which manages the motorway network, said that since the introduction of the first smart motorway in 2006, journey reliability has improved by 22 percent and personal injury accidents have reduced by more than a half.

Red X closed lanes smart motorway fines

The RAC said: “In recent years, there has been a movement towards the permanent conversion of the hard shoulder into a running lane which has concerned us.

“The removal of the hard shoulder fundamentally increases the risk to drivers who might suffer a breakdown and are unable to reach a refuge area.

“To combat this, the RAC has worked with Highways England to increase the numbers of emergency refuge areas (ERAs), increase awareness and prominence of these by getting them repainted orange and make sure that the latest technology is used to detect when a vehicle is in trouble.”

Tips for driving on a smart motorway

Highways England has issued the following ‘quick tips’ for motorists driving on a smart motorway:

  • Never drive in a lane closed by a red ‘X’: not only is it illegal, you also risk receiving a £100 fine. You’re also endangering the lives of other motorists and anyone who could be working in the closed lane.
  • Keep to the speed limits shown on the signs: Highways England uses sensors and cameras to monitor traffic volumes, with limits set accordingly.
  • A broken white line indicates a normal running lane.
  • If the hard shoulder is being used as an extra lane, use the designated emergency areas for emergencies.
  • If your vehicle experiences difficulties, exit the motorway immediately.
  • If you break down, put your hazard lights on.
  • Most breakdowns are preventable: keep your car maintained, check your tyres and ensure you have enough fuel for your journey.

In an emergency or breakdown

Using the hazard lights

If you’re unable to exit the motorway, follow these steps:

  1. Use an emergency area. These are marked with blue signs with an orange SOS telephone symbol.
  2. If you can leave your vehicle safely, contact Highways England using the emergency telephone. Alternatively, call 0300 123 5000 from your mobile.
  3. If you can’t get to an emergency area, move to the hard shoulder (where available) or as close to the nearside as possible.
  4. Consider exiting the vehicle via the nearside door and waiting behind the safety barrier.
  5. Switch on your hazard lights and side lights. DO NOT USE A WARNING TRIANGLE.
  6. Contact your breakdown provider.

Red ‘X’

A red ‘X’ means that you must stay out of a lane that is closed to traffic. The red ‘X’ might be displayed on an overhead gantry or on large signs next to the motorway.

It’s illegal to drive in a lane closed by a red ‘X’ sign. You could receive a fixed penalty of up to £100 and three points, and in some cases more severe penalties or a court appearance.

Variable speed limits

Variable speed limit sign

Highways England might impose a variable speed limit at busy times, but they can be automatically triggered by sensors that monitor traffic flow.

The speed limit is displayed inside a red circle and is legally enforceable. If no limit is displayed, the national speed limit applies.

Keep left

You should always drive in the left-hand lane when the road ahead is clear. You must not drive on the hard shoulder except in an emergency or if instructed to by the police, Highways England or by signs.

Click here for more news and information on smart motorways.

These motorway myths are a load of rubbish

These 10 motorway myths are a load of rubbish

These motorway myths are a load of rubbish

If you regularly drive on British motorways, you probably won’t be surprised to hear the news earlier this week that police chiefs are calling for more education on how to drive on motorways  with smart motorways in particular being an issue for drivers.

In response, vehicle management firm LeasePlan UK has revealed five top motorway myth-busters about what you can and can’t do on UK motorways.

The company’s operations and business development director, Lesley Slater, said: “Changes to the motorway will bring new rules and regulations for motorists to learn and abide by. It is important for drivers to take responsibility for their own safety by staying up to date with any new laws introduced.

“Confusion around what is and what is not legal on the motorway is compounded by the fact that drivers are not allowed to drive on the motorway until passing their practical driving test. This is right from a driver safety perspective ,but as it isn’t mandatory to have an additional motorway driving lesson, this can lead to gaps in knowledge, confidence and experience.”

Leaseplan’s 5 motorway myth-busters

Leaseplan's 5 motorway myth-busters

These are the top five motorway myth-busters according to Leaseplan. Are they news to you?

1: Any vehicle can drive in the right-hand lane

On a three-lane motorway, it’s against the law to drive a goods vehicle with a maximum laden weight of more than 7.5 tonnes in the outside lane. The same applies to trailers – including caravans, so don’t even think about using the ‘fast’ lane to get to the campsite quicker. If you do, you could be hit with a fine of £100 and three points on your licence.

2: The left-hand lane is the lorry lane

Similarly, the inside lane of the motorway can (and should be) used by any vehicle. Worryingly, a recent survey by the AA found that nearly one in 10 young drivers described the left-hand lane as a ‘lorry lane’, only to be used by those driving HGVs. Drivers ‘hogging’ the middle or outside lane when there’s no one in the inside lane can now be hit with an on-the-spot fine.

3: There is no national speed limit on the motorway

While we’re sure no one really thinks there’s no speed limit on the motorway, it’s true that many drivers seem to think they can get away with travelling at 80 or 90mph and they’re safe from prosecution. While cameras typically stick to the ‘10% plus two’ rule (meaning they’re unlikely to issue fines for up to 79mph on motorways), traffic officers are within their rights to penalise you for driving at anything over 70mph.

You should note, too, that a lower 60mph limit applies to vehicles over 7.5 tonnes or towing a trailer (including caravans).

4: If you break down by the side of the motorway and there’s an animal in the car, you can remove it

If you have to pull over on the hard shoulder, it’s important for you and your passengers to safely leave the vehicle and stand behind the barrier on the side of the motorway. Crashes involving cars stopped on the hard shoulder are fairly common, and the damage can be devastating if a lorry takes out a broken-down car.

However, you should not remove any animals you have in the car. While many of us are attached to our pets, removing them from a vehicle at the side of the motorway is too dangerous. You don’t know how they’re going to react they might panic and run into the road, and could potentially cause a crash. It’s safer to leave them in the car.

5: You can stop on the hard shoulder if you are ill or need the toilet

Motorists stopping on the hard shoulder rather than stopping at a motorway service station to use the facilities is still a worryingly common sight. The hard shoulder is for emergency use only  and that doesn’t include a passenger getting travel sick, needing the toilet or reading a map. Keep going until you can leave the motorway and find somewhere safe and legal to stop.

Our top motorway myths

Leaseplan's 5 motorway myth-busters

We thought we’d add our own motorway myths to those from LeasePlan to help educate drivers. If you think we’ve missed any, let us know in the comments section below.

1: Fog lights should be used in poor visibility

The highway code states: “You MUST use headlights when visibility is seriously reduced, generally when you cannot see for more than 100 metres (328 feet). You may also use front or rear fog lights but you MUST switch them off when visibility improves.”

Some drivers switch their fog lights on at the slightest hint of rain, snow or mist  and forget to turn them off. They can be blinding to other drivers and even disguise your brake lights, making them more dangerous than not using them. In reality, if you can comfortably see the rear lights of the car ahead, you probably don’t need your fog lights on.

2: Traffic on motorways should move over for joining traffic

If there’s a lot of traffic heading down a slip road and you’re in the inside lane with space to move over, it might be helpful to indicate and move out to create space for people joining the motorway. Ultimately, however, it’ s up to the job of joining traffic to give way to drivers already on the motorway.

Some people are overly cautious when joining the motorway. Joining at low speeds can be very dangerous. If you’ve got a queue of traffic behind you, you could be putting other drivers in a dangerous situation. It’s easier to lose speed than gain speed, so build up your speed on the slip road then slot into traffic when you join on the motorway.

3: Lorry drivers can see everything

However many mirrors are fitted to lorries, drivers will always have blindspots. This is particularly true for drivers of left-hand-drive lorries on British motorways, who might struggle to see traffic sitting alongside them. If you’ve overtaking a lorry, spend the minimum time alongside them. Also, be careful not to change lanes into a lorry’s blindspot when they might be about to pull out to overtake a slower vehicle.

4: You should slow down for speed cameras

Average speed cameras are increasingly common along sections of sections of smart motorways. These time how long a vehicle takes to travel between cameras, and can issue fines if average speed is above the variable speed limit.

They don’t work like normal speed cameras, so slowing down when passing below gantries before speeding up again could land you with a speeding ticket. It’ll also annoy other drivers.

5: Highways Agency traffic officers can stop you for speeding

It’s a common sight: drivers sitting in line behind a Highways Agency traffic officer in a 4×4 doing 68mph because they daren’t overtake. While they might look similar to police, they have no powers to pull you over or prosecute you for speeding. They’re there to help in emergency situations  and they do have the power to stop traffic when required.

Opinion: we need more motorway cameras

Opinion: we need more motorway cameras

Opinion: we need more motorway cameras

This morning we revealed that there are 27% fewer dedicated traffic police on our roads compared to just five years ago. That’s a worrying stat. Especially if you drive around the M25 regularly.

You see, while there are cameras everywhere along the M25, ready for sniping that person who strays up to 60mph when the 50mph signs are displaying on the gantries, there is so much poor driving that the police aren’t there to see.

It’s interesting to look at the police areas in which the M25 passes, and how traffic officer numbers have fluctuated over the years.

As of 31 March 2015, Kent has 94 traffic officers (a drop of 44 compared to 2010), Surrey has 94 (down by 6), Thames Valley 204 (down by 24), Hertfordshire 91 (down by 48) and Essex 148 (down by 109 compared to 2010, but up by 72 compared to 2014).

The general theme is that you’re considerably less likely to see a liveried 3 Series patrolling London’s orbital motorway than just five years ago.

So what’s the solution? More traffic cops, obviously. But as cuts mean that’s unlikely to happen in the near future, I have another idea. Why not turn all those average speed cameras into lane-hogging cameras?

Lane-hogging is a huge issue on the M25. It probably accounts for something like 154% of congestion (figure might not be entirely accurate). Traffic officers are now able to dish out on-the-spot fines for those showing poor lane discipline, but they’re not there to do so.

So, how difficult could it be to use those cameras to catch lane-hoggers? As I was sat in traffic on the M25, I was giving this thought. Simply, they could read number plates of cars passing through in each lane, and any vehicle that repeatedly passes under cameras in the same lane could be flagged up.

Obviously it can’t be that simple. What about if there’s heavy traffic, where it just isn’t possible or practical to move between lanes? This is 2016… it can’t be that difficult for cameras to cleverly work out whether the inside lanes are clear enough for cars to move over.

Alternatively, they could just be used to snipe motorists continually passing under middle lane cameras at speeds above 60mph – in which case the motorway should be clear enough to move over occasionally.

Sure, some people won’t support the idea of more cameras. But anything that stops middle-lane morons clogging up the M25 is fine with me. What do you think?

Ministers call for an end to lengthy roadworks

Roadworks TomTom

It’s the news the beleaguered motorist has been waiting for: an end to what feels like roadworks that go on for miles and miles. Highways England is considering proposals to limit the length of roadworks on motorways and A-roads to a maximum of between two and five miles, bringing some relief to commuters.

Government ministers are putting pressure on contractors to shorten the length of roadworks, with the Department for Transport (DfT) calling for “common sense decisions.” A spokesperson for the DfT said: “Our road investment strategy will deliver the biggest upgrade to Britain’s roads in a generation and secure our transport network for the long term.

“But as it is delivered we’ve got to respect the drivers who use our roads every day.

“That means taking common sense decisions to minimise frustrations wherever possible.”

Favourable, if sceptical response to news

Music to the ears of UK motorists? The response on Twitter has been largely favourable, although some are sceptical that the proposed changes will actually take place:

Drivers who have to face the misery of the M3 on a daily basis will undoubtedly welcome the news. Work is currently underway to transform the section between junctions 2 and 4a into a smart motorway, complete with a 50mph limit along a 13.4-mile stretch of road. Construction started last autumn and isn’t expected to be complete until the winter of 2016.

A common sense step?

There are similar works taking place on the M1 and M6 motorways, with drivers resigned to the fact they will face delays to their journey.

Under the proposals, many of the current roadworks would need to be scaled back. The AA’s Edmund King called for more overnight works, with motorway roadworks “limited to 10 miles”, arguing that “more incentives” would encourage contractors to get the work finished on time.

Meanwhile, RAC chief engineer David Bizley, told Motoring Research: “The Government’s road investment strategy has promised motorists the biggest improvement to England’s major roads in a generation. However it is vital that this upgrade is delivered in a way that does not cause unnecessary inconvenience.

“The sight of mile after mile of traffic cones and reduced speed limits, only for work to be taking place on a single small stretch of road, is a source of frustration for motorists. A move to complete major roadworks in phases, which would see motorists encounter shorter ‘bursts’ of temporary speed limits rather than a single one that runs for a long distance, will be seen as a common sense step by drivers.”

£15 billion ‘road revolution’

The government has committed to spend £15 billion before the end of the decade, as part of a ‘roads revolution’ across the country. Planned projects include a smart motorway between junctions 3 and 12 on the M4, along with a similar scheme between junctions 4a and 6 on the M5 in the Midlands. Needless to say, the new proposals will have an impact on the proposed works.

There are currently no timescales attached to the proposals and no guarantee that the limits will be enforced. We’ll bring you more news when we have it.

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