Last week transport secretary Ruth Kelly announced that, following the successful experiment of active traffic management (ATM) on the M42 around Birmingham, hard shoulder running would be extended to large parts of the motorway network.
ATM has been shown to increase capacity and reduce delays on sections of very heavily trafficked roads not just in England but also in the Netherlands and Germany.
However, the jury is still out on how safe these layouts actually are.
Motorways have been a major part of the UK's transport infrastructure for nearly 50 years and the hard shoulder is one of their most important features. It is something for which countless travellers have been consistently grateful, providing somewhere to go when a vehicle experiences difficulties or breaks down, while providing the emergency services with a route through to an incident.
I believe hard shoulders have saved numerous lives over the years and have made a significant contribution to the superior safety record of motorways over, say, dual carriageway trunk roads.
We need to be very wary of throwing this safety advantage away and I worry about the consequences of a multi-vehicle pile up in fog on a long rural motorway stretch between junctions with the hard shoulder blocked to emergency vehicles by cars and lorries.
ATM schemes need comprehensive surveillance and stringent recovery and rescue plans to be in place to provide access for emergency services. Properly managed in this way they have a role in a highways strategy, particularly in near urban conurbations (such as the M42) where junctions are closely spaced.
However, in rural Northamptonshire, for example, I am not convinced. Furthermore, how are we going to avoid routes consisting of sections where hard shoulder running is prohibited sandwiched between sections where it is encouraged? That is a recipe for driver confusion.
The bigger concern, however, is that ATM is seen as a long-term solution that removes road widening or new road construction from the transport agenda for most of the country. Do we really want to end up with a motorway network where a 50mph limit effectively becomes the norm? What about the non-motorway network, or those parts that deserve to be turned into motorway?
There is also a myth which has been circulating for some years that the UK highway network is complete. It doesn't feel that way for anybody trying to travel between such major centres of population as Southampton and Bristol, Norwich and Nottingham, Sheffield and Manchester or on a host of other cross-country journeys.
We should be focusing on the road network the UK needs to be effective and competitive – a balance of new and widened roads along with appropriate use of technology. We need to be thinking about what the road network map should look like in 2025 because, if we put all our eggs in the ATM basket, that map will be the same as it is today. By 2050 we could still be waiting for the comprehensive road network we really need today.
-Tim Healey is director of civil engineering at Capita Symonds.