The UK Government has paused the introduction of new sections of smart motorway amid concerns aout their safety.
Responding to a report from the Commons Transport Select Committee (TSC), the Department for Transport said it would temporarily halt work on any new stretches of all lane running road until five years’ worth of safety data had been gathered.
The announcement came after MPs said government plans to press on with the roll-out of all lane running motorways were “premature” and amid ongoing concerns around driver safety.
Since they first appeared in 2014, there have been arguments around the safety of the roads, which remove the hard shoulder in favour of managed lane closures.
How safe are smart motorways?
The Department for Transport and National Highways say that smart motorways are, mile-for-mile, safer than conventional motorways but opponents say they put drivers at risk of collisions that could be avoided with a hard shoulder.
The main concern among critics is that without a hard shoulder, there is a greater chance of a vehicle breaking down in a live lane and being involved in a collision with a moving vehicle.
National Highways, which operates England’s motorway network, confirms that the risk of a “live lane collision” between a moving vehicle and a stopped vehicle is greater on all-lane running (ALR) and dynamic hard shoulder (DHS) motorways. But, it says, the risk of a collision between two or more moving vehicles is lower.
Its latest data show there have been 63 fatalities on stretches of smart motorway between 2015 and 2019 and 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.
However, 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.
There are three types of smart motorway - controlled; dynamic hard shoulder and all-lane-running. 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. 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 - the Government’s preferred type of smart motorway - was higher than on conventional motorways.
In 2018 the ALR fatality rate was a third higher - 0.19 per hmvm compared with 0.14 on conventional motorways - and in 2019 it was 0.14 compared with 0.13. DHS fatality rates were also higher in 2019 - 0.18 per hmvm compared with conventional motorways’ 0.13.
National Highways argues that its longer-term averages prove smart motorways are safer and that such figures are needed because “single year figures are too low and variable to draw consistent conclusions from”.
However, the Transport Select Committee report says that there is not enough evidence to draw a conclusion either way and has called on at least five years’ of data for every section of ALR road before any more are allowed to open. The DfT now appears to have accepted this argument, with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps saying the pause in the roll-out will “provide the data to inform out next steps”.
That is a view shared by AA President Edmund King, who pointed out that there is currently only five years’ worth of data for 29 miles of ALR road.
Neil Greig, director of policy and research at safety charity IAM Roadsmart, said that despite the official figures, there was a “complete mismatch” between the theory and reality of smart motorway use and 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”.
The same National Highways data shows that 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.
Are smart motorways being scrapped?
The latest announcement from the Government does not mean a complete end to smart motorways but does mean their introduction will be limited for the foreseeable future.
All existing sections of smart motorway will continue to operate, and work will continue on stretches where construction is already underway.
However, proposed new stretches and those where design work is complete but construction has not yet started will be put on hold until more safety evidence is gathered.
What is being done to make smart motorways safer?
In March 2020, the Government announced an 18-point plan to improve smart motorways.
Among measures were scrapping “confusing” dynamic hard shoulder routes, increasing the number and visibility of emergency refuge areas, introducing new stopped vehicle detection (SVD) technology and spending £5 million on a driver education programme.
The TSC report reinforced the need for more emergency refuge areas closer together, as well as the rapid rollout of SVD. It also called for ALR roads to revert to controlled motorways with a hard shoulder overnight - a suggestion welcomed by Mr King.
He said: “We have campaigned consistently for ERAs at least every three quarters of a mile and have been pushing for a rapid retrofit programme. With 38% of breakdowns on smart motorways happen in live lanes. If there are not enough refuges and not accurate enough technology to warn of the danger, drivers become sitting ducks.”
The latest annoucement from the DfT includes plans to spend £900 million improving safety on existing smart motorways, including spending £390m on additional emergency refuge areas.
Some campaigners want all hard shoulders reinstated, arguing this is the only way to make motorways safer. They include Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason was killed on a “smart” section of the M1. In response to the TSC report, she said: “We don’t need a raft of changes. We just need the hard shoulder back in every single instance.”
The DfT argues that hard shoulders themselves are not safe places for drivers, and the TSC reported agreed that: “The evidence suggests that doing so could put more drivers and passengers at risk of death and serious injury.”
Mr Greig also warned that a mixture of full- and part-time hard shoulders could actually make matters worse by confusing drivers.
He also said that despite the official data, many road users felt unsafe on smart motorways and called for urgent action to change this perception.
He told National World: “No motorway can ever be 100% safe, and the hard shoulder was always a very risky place to be, but a moratorium on any more new smart motorways would allow full analysis of their performance to date and the chance to finally get it right.
“As a minimum that means implementing stopped vehicle detection technology, building more refuges, improving incident response and more road user education so people know how to use them.”
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