The rollout of “all-lane-running” smart motorways is being paused amid safety concerns, following a government inquiry.
The Department for Transport (DfT) says it will pause the expansion of smart motorways, where the hard shoulder is permanently a live traffic lane until there’s five years’ worth of data on drivers’ safety.
Where work is already underway, a £390m retrofit programme will see additional emergency refuge areas and Stopped Vehicle Detection technology installed where possible.
The decision follows a recommendation by the Commons Transport Select Committee which highlighted that there wasn’t enough safety and economic data to justify continuing with the project.
Campaigners ‘had been shouting’ about smart motorways
Jason Mercer died in 2019 while driving to work. He had a shunt with a van on a stretch of the M1 near Sheffield which had been converted to a smart motorway.
After both vehicles stopped, they were hit by a lorry. Claire Mercer says her husband would still be alive had there been a hard shoulder.
She told Sky News: “At first I thought it was just a tragic accident. But the more and more I learned, it never should have happened and it didn’t need to happen.
“Campaigners had been shouting about smart motorways for years and years, it just made it so much more painful.”
Ms Mercer founded Smart Motorways Kill and has been campaigning for the abolishment of the motorways entirely.
She says “none of this is enough”, she wants to see hard shoulders being brought back in every instance.
‘Right government takes stock’ of smart motorways
In a report, the transport committee described the government’s decision in March 2020 that all future smart motorways would be all-lane-running versions as “premature”.
Concerns have been voiced following fatal incidents involving broken-down vehicles being hit from behind.
Nicholas Lyes, Head of Roads Policy at RAC, told Sky News: “We think that it is right that the government takes stock, looks at the evidence, looks at the data and collects all the data before making a decision as to whether or not it is right to proceed.
“Ultimately it is the permanent removal of the hard shoulder and insufficient refuge areas that is the problem.
“If a driver stops in a live lane then potentially they can be at mercy of drivers behind them not following some of the information on the gantry signs.”
‘Crucial’ to undergo data review, says transport secretary
Smart motorways were introduced in England in 2014 to ease congestion – there are 375 miles of smart motorway, including 235 miles with no hard shoulder.
Carriageways that will not be turned into all-lane-running motorways, pending the five-year safety data review, include the M3 J9-14, the M40/M42 interchange, the M62 J20-25, and the M25 J10-16.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “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.
“Pausing schemes yet to start construction and making multimillion-pound improvements to existing schemes will give drivers confidence and provide the data we need to inform our next steps.”
Tory MP Huw Merriman, who chairs the Commons Transport Select Committee, said: “It was clear to our committee that the public needs more reassurance that these motorways are safe to use.
“With conflicting and patchy evidence covering a limited number of years, more time was required to properly assess the impact on safety.
“By accepting our recommendation to pause the rollout of smart motorways, the Government will have the weight of evidence to assist planning for future road building design.
“It is important that this extra time is not just spent on evaluation, it must be focused on making smart motorways safer.”
Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary, Louise Haigh, said: “We know smart motorways in their current form, coupled with inadequate safety systems, are not fit for purpose and are putting lives at risk.
“Ministers were wrong to press ahead when the strong evidence warned against it.
“Today’s announcement is a welcome step, but Ministers should go one step further and reinstate the hard shoulder while this safety work and the accompanying review of the evidence takes place.”