Magazine article The Spectator

James Delingpole: Smart Motorways Are Stupid

Magazine article The Spectator

James Delingpole: Smart Motorways Are Stupid

Article excerpt

‘An attempted improvement which actually makes things worse.’ The Germans have a name for this — Verschlimmbesserung — and I ran into a perfect example the other day when my power suddenly failed in the fast lane of one of those so-called ‘smart’ motorways.

These are the new breed of motorways so clever and advanced that they don’t have hard shoulders on to which you can retreat in emergencies. No: instead, if you can’t make one of the safe haven pull-ins supposedly spaced every mile and a half, then you get the thrilling (and, you pray, never-to-be-repeated experience) of grinding to a halt in the live lane of a motorway, with lorries thundering towards your rear at 50mph.

Utterly terrifying though it was, it happened so quickly I barely had time to panic. I do remember various confused, self–pitying thoughts running round my head, like: ‘This is a German car. This cannot be happening.’ But the dominant part of my brain just got on with the business of saving me: accelerator, no response, mirror, coast into the slow lane, get ready to get out and — get out really quickly, hare round the front of the car, hurdle the barrier. Then head in the direction of the oncoming traffic so that if/when the car gets taken out by a lorry you in turn don’t get hit by your car as it flies on to the verge.

The first five minutes were the worst. (Imagine if I’d had an elderly or disabled passenger. Or a baby to retrieve from a baby seat.) I don’t know how many near–collisions I witnessed, lorries — and cheeky car drivers trying to overtake on the inside lane — swerving at the last second to avoid my stranded motor. Destruction seemed so inevitable I’d already started making plans about what car I’d get next.

But at least with all this newfangled smart camera technology they spot you and get you off pretty quickly, right? Wrong. In the first few minutes, the other arm frantically wafting the ‘slow down’ signal, I called first 999, then Northamptonshire police, then the AA. Still nobody came for a whole hour. Nor, from the way the traffic moved, did there appear any indication that the overhead gantries had been deployed to close the lane. (Either that or, as quite often happens, drivers were completely ignoring the red X sign.)

What averted disaster was the quick thinking and generosity of a paramedic on his way with his wife and kids to his mum’s for Sunday lunch. He pulled up his pick-up behind my car, backed up 50 yards, and acted as a barrier with his blue lights flashing. I wish I’d taken his name so I could thank him properly — and send my apologies to his mum for having kept her waiting half an hour.

Eventually, the rescuers came by chance. None of my calls had had any effect. (The police are only interested if there are injuries, I was told. …

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