A section of the M1 motorway

‘No errors’ in smart motorway safety report, says regulator

Image credit: Alamy

An official analysis of a report that claimed smart motorways were at least as safe as conventional motorways has concluded, saying that it found no errors in the report's calculations.

The regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), said all the available data was used in the “stocktake” of the Department for Transport (DfT) report, published in March last year.

However, the ORR pointedly noted that “there is a limited amount of data available”, given that only 29 miles of motorways in England with the hard shoulder removed have five years' worth of safety figures.

The ORR made a series of recommendations to National Highways, the government-owned company responsible for motorways and major A-roads in England, which was still known as Highways England when the review was commissioned in March 2021.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps commissioned the ORR's independent review of safety data for the controversial roads, following a Sunday Times analysis which suggested that 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.

The ORR's recommendations include that National Highways works with motor insurers to get access to information regarding no-injury crashes on smart motorways and that it uses a smaller number of metrics to communicate safety data.

There are concerns about the safety of all-lane-running smart motorways – in which the hard shoulder is converted into a running lane – due to several fatal accidents involving stationary vehicles being hit from behind.

Shapps, who commissioned the ORR to examine the DfT’s “stocktake”, said it was “a thorough undertaking” and he welcomed its conclusion: “The report supports National Highways’ findings that smart motorways are the safest roads in the country in terms of fatalities.

“The ORR’s report contains several recommendations for improvement that will strengthen our understanding of road safety. National Highways have agreed to all its recommendations and developed an action plan in response which is already under way.”

Edmund King, president of motoring group the AA, commented: “We are pleased that this further analysis of the performance of smart motorways has been made public. The ORR report shows that there was a ‘limited amount of data available’, so it is perhaps difficult to fully evaluate the performance of smart motorways, hence it will be essential to have continuous monitoring and evaluation.

“We believe that controlled motorways with a hard shoulder are the safest option and, for other stretches, installing more emergency lay-bys on the existing network, in our view, will help improve both safety and driver confidence.

“Analysis shows that the forecast benefits have not been realised in some places, resulting in slower journey times, lower speeds and lower levels of economic benefit compared to assumptions.”

In April this year, National Highways (the agency formerly known as Highways England) announced no new smart motorways without a hard shoulder would open in the country unless radar technology is installed to detect drivers who break down in live lanes. The company also said that retrofitting the Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) system to the existing network will be moved forward by six months.

The original deadline had been March 2023, but progress on the rollout was slow, with figures showing that the SVD upgrade had only been installed on three sections of the motorway network, totalling just 37 miles out of the 500-mile smart motorway network.

National Highways has faced consistent criticism over the safety of smart motorways. It continues to insist that the roads are at least as safe as conventional motorways. The so-called smart motorways use live traffic management to relieve congestion, such as via flexible speed limits and opening the hard shoulder for use as an extra lane. Smart motorway operation can be found on sections of the M1, M4, M5, M6, M25, M42 and M62.

Following a number of fatal collisions on smart motorways – caused by drivers breaking down in traffic and being unable to pull onto the hard shoulder – MPs investigated the issue and published a report characterising them as “death traps” which had been introduced carelessly and caused avoidable fatalities.

E&T has looked more closely into the issues surrounding smart motorways and the forces driving their implementation ahead.

The UK government announced the rebrand of Highways England - the second multi-million pound rebranding exercise in just six years, at taxpayers' expense - in August this year. Highways England changed its name to National Highways, having previously changed its name from Highways Agency in 2015.

Despite the name change, National Highways will still have no control over roads in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.

At the time of the announcement, AA's King described the name change as “a bizarre move” and said the company “looks after main roads and motorways in England”, adding, “It is not national in the sense that it doesn’t cover the nations of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland".

King said: “Drivers really don’t care what it is called but they do care about having well-maintained, safe roads and motorways. Ironically, many people still refer to it as the Highways Agency despite changing its name six years ago.”

When speculation about the intended rebrand first emerged in October 2020, Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville Roberts said: “Given this Westminster government’s obsession with rowing back our devolution settlement, this rebrand is wrong, self-aggrandising and offensive.

“The fact remains that powers over the operation and maintenance of highways are fully devolved. It is beyond baffling that the UK government has to be reminded of this fact, over 20 years since the establishment of devolution. It is high time that the Tories accept reality and keep their hands off our devolved powers.”

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