Smart motorways have been branded as dangerous after an all-party parliamentary group published a report highlighting the increased number of incidents, accidents and deaths on them compared to traditional motorways.

Sir Mike Penning, the Tory MP who approved the implementation of smart motorways across the country, has now said: “they are endangering people’s lives.”

In the last five years there have been 38 deaths on smart motorways and numerous accidents and other incidents. Considering the small portion of the overall network that smart motorways cover this is worryingly high.

Following the report’s release yesterday BBC Panorama also investigated the roads. They found that on just one stretch of the M25 since it became a smart motorway in 2014 the number of near misses (an incident that has the potential to cause injury or ill health) has risen 20-fold, jumping from 72 in the five years before the hard shoulder was removed to 1,485 in the five years afterwards.

The Freedom of Information request submitted to Highways England also revealed that on the same stretch of road one warning sign had been out of action for 336 days.

The government is conducting a review of smart motorways and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said that they “must be guided by facts” when making any changes to the proposed plans.

Smart motorways use the latest technology to spot broken down vehicles, notify other drivers of incidents, close lanes, implement a variable speed limit and utilising the hard shoulder to help reduce congestion.

There are currently three types of smart motorways in the UK; all lane running schemes, controlled motorways and dynamic hard shoulder running schemes.

  • All lane running schemes: With this kind of smart motorway the hard shoulder is permanently removed and converted into an additional running lane. This lane can then be closed if there is an accident and use overhead gantry signs to notify other drivers.  These signs are also used to alert drivers to a variable speed limit if one is in place.
  • Controlled motorways: Controlled motorways maintain the traditional hard shoulder lane however they utilise variable speed limits in order to be able to slow the speed of traffic to try and reduce congestion on the road.
  • Dynamic hard shoulder running schemes: This kind of smart motorway opens the hard shoulder to running traffic in busy periods. In places that use a dynamic hard shoulder the lane will still be marked by a solid white line and drivers should check the overhead signs to see if they are able to use the lane.

Sir Mike was the Transport Minister ten years ago who agreed to expand the smart motorway network. His agreement was based on the evidence from the pilot motorway section on the M42 in the midlands, where there were safe stopping areas on average every 600 metres. However, when the network was extended this distance was not maintained and there are now gaps of up to two and half miles between lay-bys.

When speaking to Panorama the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, did say that he feels the emergency refuge areas should be passed around every 60 seconds when driving at the speed limit, and that they may currently be too far apart in places.  

He also suggested they may get rid of dynamic hard shoulders adding: “we absolutely have to have these as safe, or safer, than regular motorways”.

Data shows that in just one year there were 19,000 drivers who were trapped in their vehicle after breaking down on a smart motorway.

When a car is trapped in a live lane of traffic it is not just the driver and passengers in the broken down vehicle who are at risk. Drivers in the lane behind can also feel trapped and unable to brake quickly enough or move to another lane in time to avoid collision.

The removal of the hard shoulder is also causing issues for police and recovery vehicles who are unable to reach the incident site as quickly as they would like, as there is no clear path for them to use. This is especially true when all four lanes are in use and are congested as it is difficult for cars to clear enough space for them to even get through. 

The current time for a vehicle to be spotted or reported and recovered on a smart motorway is around 34 minutes.

Recovery services like the AA and RAC take longer to reach a vehicle that is in a live lane than one in an emergency refuge area or hard shoulder as they have to work alongside the Highway Agency to have the lane closed off so it’s safe for their agents to reach the vehicle.

Speaking to Panorama President of the AA, Edmund King, said: “I certainly believe smart motorways are a scandal because we’ve been saying from the outset they are dangerous, they’re not fit for purpose.”  

As chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Roadside Rescue and Recovery, Sir Mike, has said the roll out had “been conducted with a shocking degree of carelessness”.

The report has found that that at 38% the proportion of breakdowns that came to a halt in running lanes on smart motorways was almost twice the amount that occurred on normal motorways, at 20%.

The all-party parliamentary group has called for a halt to new smart motorways for three years until there is more data on them. The group also noted a series of key points to be addressed including; doubling the number of emergency refuge areas, so they are no more than 800m apart, fitting stop detection systems to all existing roads and reducing the current recovery time from 17 minutes.

The RAC’s Report on Motoring 2019 showed that 68% of drivers felt that removing the hard shoulders on smart motorways compromised their safety.

During their investigation Panorama also found that many drivers are unsure what a smarter motorway is and how they should be driving on one. 

When using a smart motorway drivers are advised to check all gantry signs as they drive on a smart motorway, checking for any change in speed limit and lane closures, as you should never drive in a lane with a red X above it. In dynamic hard shoulder areas you should only use this when directed to.

A lot of drivers are also unaware of what to do if they breakdown on a smart motorway. If you are involved in an accident then the advice is to try and get to an emergency refuge area, put your hazards on and leave the car via the left side to use the emergency phone then remain behind the barrier. If you are unable to reach a refuge point or reach the left-hand lane and exit the vehicle then you will need to remain in your car and call 999 with your hazard lights on.

There are currently 200 miles of smart motorway across the UK with a further 300 planned for completion by the end of 2025.

Take a look at the below list of all the current smart motorway locations:

               Source: The RAC


Banner image sourced: David Jones/PA

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