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Smart motorways are death traps, MPs warn

Image credit: Highways England

A report by the all-party Parliamentary group for roadside rescue and recovery has severely criticised the implementation of smart motorways, which have led to the deaths of road users.

A 'smart motorway' uses live traffic management to relieve congestion, such as through flexible speed limits and the use of the hard shoulder as an extra lane. Supporters argue that these adaptations allow for more reliable and pleasant car journeys.

Smart motorways are most common in the UK, where they can be found on sections of the M1, M4, M5, M6, M25, M42 and M62. However, there is a low level of trust in the motorways among drivers, with an AA survey finding that just nine per cent of people feel relaxed or safe driving on a smart motorway.

The all-party Parliamentary group has published a report in which it claims that smart motorways are “death traps” which had been introduced carelessly, causing the deaths of road users.

These fatal accidents occur when drivers break down in speeding traffic, unable to pull into the hard shoulder.

The publication of the report follows the broadcast of a BBC Panorama documentary, which investigated the fatal impacts of the smart motorway rollout. The BBC submitted a freedom of information request to Highways England and found that 38 people have been killed on smart motorways in the past five years. While this figure appears small in comparison to the thousands of other road fatalities that occurred during this period, it is notable on account of the very small fraction of road length converted into smart motorways.

The number of near misses (an incident with the potential to cause injury) on just one section of the M25 has risen 20-fold since its hard shoulder was removed in April 2014: in the five years before it became a smart motorway there were 72 recorded near misses, rising to 1,485 in the five years after.

The report said that claims from Highways England that radar technology could be used to save lives on the smart motorways was a “gross public policy failure”. The Stopped Vehicle Detection systems, which detect stranded vehicles as soon as they break down and automatically summon assistance, have been implemented on only about six per cent of the smart motorway network (two sections of the M25).

MPs found it took an average of 34 minutes of waiting until emergency services arrived at a breakdown, with recovery vehicles being put at risk by ‘orbiting’ the breakdown until the lane is closed. The Stopped Vehicle Detection system should have been in place from the outset, the MPs stated.

Sir Mike Penning, the former government minister who approved the rollout and who contributed to the damning report, told Panorama that he was seriously misled about the safety of the system and called for the rollout to be immediately halted.

“[The rollout has] been conducted with a shocking degree of carelessness. Smart motorways today do not resemble the designs I signed off as roads minister,” he said. “Highways England appear to have casually ignored the commitments they made to the House of Commons in 2016. That is not acceptable.”

Transport secretary Grant Shapps told Panorama that he was interested in changing smart motorways regardless, due to them confusing drivers: “We absolutely have to have these as safe or safer than regular motorways or we shouldn’t have them at all.”

A government review into smart motorways was announced in October 2019. It is expected to conclude shortly and recommend reforms to the systems to improve safety.

Highways England has issued a statement in response to today's reports, saying: "Any death on our roads is one too many, and our deepest sympathies remain with the family and friends of those who lost their lives. The Transport Secretary has asked the Department for Transport to carry out, at pace, an evidence stocktake to gather the facts about smart motorway safety. We are committed to safety and are supporting the Department in its work on this.”

The organisation also points out that although scanning radar is only in use on the M25 (and in construction on the M3), other incident detection systems such as CCTV are in place on all smart motorways.

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