UK Government holds off on building more “smart motorways” until safety is assessed
Critics claim the lack of hard shoulders on long stretches of the UK’s motorway network have led to excess deaths, so more research will be carried out
For several years concerns have been circulating about the safety of all-lanes running “smart motorways” due to statistics suggesting that they may have led to increased fatalities. However, due to the relatively short length of time that these motorways have been operating, it’s been suggested there may be a lack of adequate data to draw that conclusion.
There are three different types of “smart motorway”, theoretically designed to ease congestion and improve the flow of traffic. They are controlled by overhead gantries giving drivers instructions, and feature speed cameras to detect drivers not adhering to the variable limits.
controlled, which have a permanent hard shoulder, but use technology such as variable speed limits to adjust traffic flows
dynamic, where the hard shoulder can be opened up at peak times and used as an extra lane; when this happens, the speed limit is reduced to 60mph
all-lane running, where the hard shoulder has been permanently removed to provide an extra lane; emergency refuge areas are provided at regular intervals for cars that get into trouble
Red X signs show when lanes have been closed, for instance ahead of a hazard, and drivers must immediately avoid driving in those lanes. The controversy stems from the perceived risks to drivers who need to pull over in an emergency, and don’t find a refuge area nearby. They may be forced to stop in fast-moving traffic, causing a serious hazard to other drivers. Not having a hard shoulder also restricts the ability of emergency services to reach the scene of an incident.
Recent RAC research found that a clear majority of drivers were in favour of scrapping smart motorways altogether and reintroducing the hard shoulder. However, hard shoulders themselves are dangerous – 1 in 12 accidents on motorways occur there.
Given the amount of adverse publicity that smart motorways have received over recent years, it’s encouraging to know that the government has accepted the findings of a House of Commons Transport Committee report published last year. MPs said they were “not convinced” that the benefits of all-lane running motorways were enough to justify the safety risks of permanently removing the hard shoulder.
Schemes that are already underway will still be completed, and existing stretches of all-lane running motorways will remain unchanged. However, £390m of public funds will be provided for more refuge areas and technology to detect stopped vehicles.
There will be a five year pause on the rollout of any new smart motorways beyond those that already being created, allowing for further collection of vital data, and an assessment of risks to road users.