Vehicles on the M1 Smart Motorway Bedfordshire England UK - Hero image

Fresh review launched into safety of smart motorways

Image credit: Jonathan Mitchell/Atlas Photo Archive/Dreamstime

Smart motorway crash statistics are to be analysed by the UK’s road regulator amid increasing safety fears from road users.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps has commissioned the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) to carry out an independent review of safety data for the controversial roads.

He has also ordered his officials to continue their work with Highways England – the government-owned company responsible for England’s motorways and major A roads – on “developing possible future options” for reducing accidents on smart motorways.

The design of all-lane running (ALR) smart motorways, which involve the hard shoulder being converted into a running lane, has led to safety concerns following fatal incidents involving stationary vehicles being hit from behind.

According to a Sunday Times analysis, in 2019 alone 14 people were killed on motorways where the hard shoulder was either permanently removed or being temporarily used as a live running lane.

“While the evidence has suggested that ALR motorways are in most ways as safe as, or safer than, conventional ones, I am determined to go further and ensure that they are the safest roads in Britain,” Shapps said in a written statement to Parliament.

Meanwhile, Steve Gooding, director of motoring research charity for the RAC Foundation, said the organisation strongly supports the decision to bring in the ORR for the review.

“Public confidence in the safety of smart motorways appears to be stuck at a low ebb, and the best way to offer reassurance to sceptical drivers is by publishing comprehensive safety data that the regulator has independently scrutinised,” Gooding said.

A spokesperson for the ORR said “robust and trusted data and analysis is essential”.

Shapps published a smart motorway action plan in March 2020 with 18 measures to boost safety. This included a rollout of technology to detect stranded vehicles.

He also ordered Highways England to produce a report one year on, outlining its progress and identifying actions that can be delivered ahead of schedule. This document will be published “by summer, once I am assured that the proposals are sufficiently robust”, Shapps said.

A coroner in Sheffield claimed in January that smart motorways “present an ongoing risk of future deaths” after two people were killed when a lorry driver ploughed into their vehicles while they were stationary on the M1 in South Yorkshire.

The Commons’ Transport Select Committee launched an inquiry into smart motorways last month, with chairman and Tory MP Huw Merriman warning there are “genuine worries” about the roads.

Following the release of the smart motorway action plan, E&T investigated whether the controversial roads will be smart enough to prevent further loss of life on UK roads. Meanwhile, in January last year, a report by the all-party Parliamentary group for roadside rescue and recovery criticised the implementation of smart motorways, referring to them as "death traps".

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