Modern motorways and meters make Roger Ratcliffe smart

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Whenever I see a noun appended to the word “smart” I reach for a pinch of salt. Like most people my introduction to this was a smartphone, which I admit does loads more than my old Nokia. But I’m not sure it was smart to allow a smartphone to become so intrusive in my life through addictive social media. It is a work displacement activity that too easily stops me concentrating on important tasks.

Thankfully I’m some way off becoming a “smombie”. That’s a new portmanteau word – a composite of smartphone and zombie – which urban dictionaries define as a person who walks while using a smartphone and pays no attention to what’s ahead, thus risking an accident.

I bet some criminals will ruefully admit the word smartphone is a misnomer if they claimed to have been safely home in bed only for their mobile network provider to show police that their smartphone – tantamount to an electronic tag – put them squarely at the scene of a crime.

Then there’s Smartwater®, a brand of bottled water owned by Coca-Cola that has been distilled to remove impurities, then fortified with electrolytes like calcium and potassium. This has been widely derided. Foodwatch Germany, for example, dismissed it as “the most brazen lie in food advertising” and “nothing but ordinary water which yields no proven nutritional benefits whatsoever”.

A recent addition to the smart genre is the smart motorway. These have spread north since the first one on the M25 in 1995. Before smart became the buzzword of choice for anything new it was known as a “managed motorway”. Recent additions to the smart network have been the M1 and M62 in West Yorkshire and the M60 in Greater Manchester.

Your acceptance of the word smart in relation to motorways depends on whether you believe it’s smart to remove most of the hard shoulder, once the safe haven for drivers of conked-out vehicles. Driving along the M62 last week I was struck by how intermittent the “use hard shoulder” signs were along a 15-mile length, leaving me dangerously confused about whether it was safe to do so. It struck me that describing motorways as smart might even be an excuse for not building an extra lane on busy stretches, thus saving millions on construction costs. I can hear Sir Humphrey describing such a wheeze to the gullible Jim Hacker in Yes Minister.

However, not only do stationary vehicles on the lane once known as the hard shoulder create serious hazards, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents has voiced concern that removing hard shoulders means the emergency services have no clear route past traffic congestion and take longer
to reach an incident.

The latest smart kid on the block is the smart meter, which energy companies have been pressuring me to install in my house. There are now over 15 million in UK homes, but they often behave in erratic ways. A woman in Halifax told BBC News her’s was driving her round the bend, while one man found that his smart meter recorded he had used £33,000 of gas in one day. Not only that – some of them don’t work if you switch energy provider.

Perhaps the use of the word smart is a modern example of George Orwell’s Newspeak. To “war is peace” and “ignorance is strength” we might now add “dim is smart”.

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