The roll-out of smart motorways has been put on hold for five years so the Government can collect and assess more data following the concerns of road safety campaigners.
The controversial changes were introduced as part of a scheme to boost road capacity by converting the hard shoulder to a live running lane.
However, concerns about the safety of smart motorways has been growing…
The latest data from National Highways reveals there have been 63 fatalities on stretches of smart motorway between 2015 and 2019. Plus, a BBC Panorama investigation showed near misses between broken down and moving vehicles on one stretch of the M25 had risen 20-fold since the removal of the hard shoulder.
Here’s what Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps had to say: “One of my first actions as Transport Secretary was to order a stock-take of smart motorways and since then, I have worked consistently to raise the bar on their safety.
“While our initial data shows that smart motorways are among the safest roads in the UK, it’s crucial that we go further to ensure people feel safer using them.”
What is a smart motorway?
Unlike the traditional motorway, smart motorways manage traffic flow through various technological and traffic calming methods. By using technology to respond in real-time, traffic caused by the likes of congestion, road works and motor accidents are reduced.
There are three types of smart motorway:
Controlled – have at least three lanes, impose variable speed limits and operate a permanent hard shoulder for emergency use only.
Dynamic hard shoulder (DHS) - where the hard shoulder is used at peak times and a red X is displayed on the gantry above the lane when it’s not being used. Being caught driving in a lane with a red X could lead to a £100 fine and three points on your licence. If the hard shoulder is being used to divert traffic, a maximum speed limit of 60mph is enforced and monitored.
All-lane-running (ALR) - were introduced in 2014 and involve opening the hard shoulder permanently to drivers. In an emergency drivers are expected to pull into emergency refuge areas (ERAs).
In March 2020, the government said dynamic smart motorways were confusing and should be phased out in favour of all-lane running, removing the hard shoulder permanently.
A considerable amount of data on deaths and serious injuries – both for and against, has been collected over the years, for example:
Data for 2015 to 2019 shows that, on average, the fatality rates - calculated per hundred million vehicle miles (hmvm) travelled - are lower on all forms of smart motorway than on conventional motorways, where 368 people died between 2015 and 2019.
The figures show that the rate on controlled motorways is 0.07 per hmvm, dynamic hard shoulder routes is 0.09 and all-lane running is 0.12 – whereas on conventional motorways the figure is 0.15 per hmvm.
However, the data also shows that in 2018 and 2019 the fatality rate on ALR roads was higher than on conventional motorways.
Serious injury rates are a tenth lower on conventional motorways than ALR routes and minor casualties are also higher on all three types of smart motorway.
Neil Greig, director of policy and research at safety charity IAM Roadsmart, said there was a “complete mismatch” between the theory and reality of smart motorway use.
He warned that currently “it looks like a smart motorway creates more chances for human error rather than fewer, and… the punishment is all too often fatal”.
Jeremy Richardson QC was the judge at the trial of a lorry driver who hit two men on a part of the M1 without a hard shoulder near Sheffield.
He said it wasn’t his role to conduct an inquiry, but added: “A hard shoulder strikes me as analogous to the emergency doors on an aeroplane or lifeboats on ships.
“One never hopes ever to use them, and most of the time you never do. But they’re there.”
Alan Billings, the police and crime commissioner for South Yorkshire, wrote to the transport secretary in January 2021, saying: “I believe that smart motorways of this kind — where what would be a hard shoulder is a live lane with occasional refuges — are inherently unsafe and dangerous and should be abandoned.
“The relevant test for us is whether someone who breaks down on this stretch of the motorway, where there is no hard shoulder, would have had a better chance of escaping death or injury had there still been a hard shoulder.
“And the coroner’s verdict makes it clear that the answer to that question is yes.”
No doubt you’re wondering about the safety improvements made as a result of the above statistics? Here’s all you need to know:
Since 2020, Highways England has ensured that each smart motorway has frequent emergency areas which are coloured orange so they’re more visible to drivers and include improved signage.
‘Radar-based stopped vehicle detection’ (SVD) technology which detects a vehicle that’s stopped, is in place on the M3 and the M20, and it is set to be installed on the M1 smart motorway stretch.
Cameras across all smart motorways have also been upgraded to help police officers find people driving in a closed lane.
While the Department for Transport said that available data shows that smart motorways are the safest roads in the UK in terms of fatalities, it has agreed to have the technology independently evaluated by the regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) over the next five years.
The government’s decision was made after a report by the cross-party transport select committee demanded a halt to the programme and a number of safety enhancements was recommended.
Highways England is investing £900 million to improve existing smart motorways, with £390 million earmarked to create 150 more emergency refuge areas on ALRs by 2025 – a 50% increase.
Highways England also says: “Smart motorways have greatly increased the capacity of the country’s most important roads … they reduce congestion, make journeys smoother and support the economy.”
But the lack of a hard shoulder remains a safety concern for motorists and campaigners.
A YouGov poll at the start of 2021 found 64% of people polled thought that smart motorways were less safe compared to motorways with hard shoulders.
The figure rose to 82% among the over-65s.
In light of the above, it’s worth noting that work will be suspended on the M3 between junctions 9 and 14, the M40/M42 interchange, the M62 between junctions 20 and 25, and the M25 between junctions 10 and 16.
Here at One Call Insurance, there’s nothing we want more than for you to feel safe whilst on the roads. We shall therefore keep an eye on the future of smart motorways and will keep you posted on any proposed changes. But in the meantime, it looks like the rollout is on hold for the foreseeable future.
If you’re an existing customer and you happen to break down on a smart motorway or any other road/motorway, please contact our breakdown team for immediate assistance.
Registering your breakdown via the customer portal will enable us to track your exact location – you can register your breakdown here. Alternatively, please call 0203 738 7300 and we will endeavour to get you to a safe location as quickly as possible.
In the meantime, stay safe!
* Please note that the above information has been gathered through secondary research. The information provided is not based on our opinion. You should seek further guidance and information before making an informed decision.