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Cars on the M1 Smart Motorway in Bedfordshire England UK

Highways England ramps up safety plan for smart motorways

Image credit: Jonathan Mitchell/Dreamstime

Highways England has announced no new smart motorways without a hard shoulder will open in the country unless radar technology is installed to detect drivers who break down in live lanes.

The UK government-owned company also said retrofitting the Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) system to the existing network will be moved forward by six months.

An action plan launched by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps in March 2020 included a deadline of rolling out SVD across the entire network by March 2023, but he announced in February that the measure aimed at boosting smart motorway safety will be completed ahead of schedule, for September next year.

There is growing concern over all lane running (ALR) smart motorways – which involves the hard shoulder being converted into a running lane – because of several fatal accidents involving stationary vehicles being hit from behind. Last year, MPs warned such motorways are “death traps”.

In a progress report, Highways England described smart motorways as “the safest roads in the country”, stating the number of fatalities per distance driven is a third higher on conventional motorways than ALR motorways. It added 15 people were killed on motorways without a permanent hard shoulder in 2019, up from 11 in 2018.

“Despite the data showing that fatalities are less likely on ALR motorways than on conventional ones, this doesn’t mean all drivers necessarily feel safe on them,” said Shapps. “That is why I tasked Highways England last year with delivering an action plan to set a higher standard on safety measures. This progress report shows the extensive work already carried out, but we want to do more.”

Meanwhile, Highways England’s acting chief executive Nick Harris said: “We’ve made excellent progress delivering the improvements set out in the 2020 stock take, but we are not complacent and are examining ways to improve safety further.”

Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason Mercer died on a smart motorway in June 2019, said: “It’s all compromises. Nothing is new... Nothing short of giving back the hard shoulder in every single instance will be acceptable.” Sheffield coroner David Urpeth told an inquest this January that “a lack of hard shoulder contributed” to Mercer’s death, and that smart motorways “presents an ongoing risk of future deaths”.

According to Steve Gooding, director of motoring research charity the RAC Foundation, there is a gap between what the data suggests about the safety of smart motorways and what many drivers believe to be the case. “The numbers mean nothing if it’s your car that breaks down and you can’t reach an emergency refuge,” he said.

Gooding added that the challenge for Highways England is not just doing the upgrade work but communicating to road users that all lane running requires a different mindset from drivers – and only then will they start to turn public opinion around.

Last month, Shapps commissioned the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), the UK’s road regulator, to carry out an independent review of safety data for the controversial roads. He also ordered his officials to continue their work with Highways England on “developing possible future options” for reducing accidents on smart motorways.

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

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