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Smart motorway safety plans laid out by DfT

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The Department for Transport has proposed a set of plans to ensure the safety of “smart motorways”, including the accelerated rollout of technology to detect stranded vehicles.

A ‘smart motorway’ uses live traffic management to relieve congestion as an alternative to widening roads, such as with the temporary introduction of flexible speed limits and use of the hard shoulder as an extra lane. 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.

Proponents of smart motorways argue that these adaptations will allow for more reliable car journeys. 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.

A recent report by the all-party parliamentary group for roadside rescue and recovery strongly criticised the implementation of smart motorways.

The report characterised smart motorways as “death traps” which – despite only comprising a tiny fraction of the UK’s motorways – have killed at least 38 road users. 'Stopped Vehicle Detection' technology, which detects stationary vehicles within 20 seconds and automatically summons assistance, has only been implemented in around six per cent of the smart motorway network (two sections of the M25).

In response to criticism, transport secretary Grant Shapps has released an “action plan” [PDF] to improve safety on smart motorways.

Safety measures will include providing more places for drivers to stop in an emergency (which Shapps claims will be safer than the hard shoulder) with a new standard for the spacing of emergency stopping regions every three-quarters of a mile, down from the current maximum spacing of one mile. The report has also promised that the rollout of the Stopped Vehicle Detection system to all smart motorways will be accelerated so that all smart motorways without a hard shoulder have the technology after three years.

Shapps claimed that while he was “greatly concerned” by the reported number of fatalities, smart motorways are as safe or safer than conventional motorways. This is because the risk of a collision between two or more moving vehicles is lower on account of speeding, tailgating and rapid changes of speed being discouraged, smoothing the flow of traffic. However, he acknowledged that the risk of a collision between a stopped and moving vehicle is higher on a smart motorway.

“I am clear that there is more we can do to raise the bar on smart motorway safety,” he wrote in his introduction to the report.

Jim O’Sullivan, Highways England chief executive, said: “Every death in any road accident is tragic and we are determined to do all we can to make our roads as safe as possible. We will be taking forward the measures the Secretary of State for Transport has set out and we will be improving further our information to drivers to help them be safer on all of our roads, including our smart motorway network.”

While the measures were welcomed by the AA, Nicholas Lyes - head of roads policy at the RAC - warned that it “remains to be seen” whether they will go far enough to protect drivers who suffer breakdowns on smart motorways.

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