What are smart motorways and why has the UK put on the brakes?

The safety of the multi-lane roads has been questioned after multiple fatal crashes

The expansion of smart motorways is being paused amid safety concerns, the British government has announced.  PA
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

The British government has announced it is pausing the expansion of smart motorways following concerns over broken-down vehicles being crashed into from behind due to the lack of a hard shoulder.

The Department for Transport said the introduction of all-lane running highways would be halted until at least five years’ worth of data has been collected to allow officials to assess whether or not they are safe for drivers.

The move was welcomed by campaigners who have lost loved ones in incidents involving broken-down vehicles on the motorways.

What are smart motorways?

Smart motorways are stretches of road where specialist technology is used to regulate the flow of vehicles and reduce congestion.

Vehicles travelling along the M4 motorway near Bristol.

There are three main types of the motorways:

1. Controlled smart motorways — these rely on technology to have speed limits adjusted. They have a permanent hard shoulder.

2. Dynamic smart motorways — these roads have a hard shoulder which can be opened up during busy periods and used as an extra lane. When this happens, the speed limit is lowered to 60 miles per hour.

3. All-lane running smart motorways — the hard shoulder has been permanently removed to serve as an additional lane. Drivers who encounter difficulty must get help at emergency refuge areas dotted along the road.

Why is the government halting all-lane running smart motorways?

Ministers have decided to put a temporary halt to these types of motorways after coming under pressure from campaigners who have lost friends and family in accidents.

However, hard shoulders will not be reinstated on the current stretches of all-lane running motorways.

The government has said it will wait to see five years of safety and economic data collected from the motorways built before 2020 before making any further decisions.

Britain’s Department for Transport said that for existing smart motorways and those already under construction, extra emergency refuge areas and technology to identify stationary vehicles will be added where possible.

The department has pledged £900 million ($1.22bn) to upgrade them, including £390 million to install 150 more emergency areas over the next three years. This will result in a 50 per cent increase in places for motorists to stop if they get into difficulty over the next three years.

What has the reaction been?

The changes were announced after MPs said in November there was not enough safety and economic data to justify the existing layout on all-lane running motorways.

Wednesday’s announcement was welcomed by many campaigners but some said the move did not go far enough to improve road safety.

Claire Mercer's husband Jason was killed in an incident on a smart motorway. Photo: PA

Claire Mercer, who husband Jason died in a smart motorway crash near Sheffield, South Yorkshire, in 2019, said the government had missed an opportunity to make life safer for drivers and suggested ministers would be more likely to take stronger action if they had suffered a loss similar to her own.

“We have had review after review after review into smart motorways and never once have they turned off the first lane while they investigate them,” Mrs Mercer said.

“Just turn off lane one and you’ve got your hard shoulder back.

“You just need to throw one switch at eight control centres and you’ve got your hard shoulder back immediately.”

The campaigner from Rotherham added: “They’d take lots more steps a lot more quickly if it was their loved ones that were being killed or maimed.”

Conservative MP Sir Mike Penning supported the introduction of smart motorways when he served as roads minister from 2010-2012. In hindsight, he claims he was misled about the safety of the motorways.

“It seems illogical to me to decide to pause the roll-out of new all-lane-running (ALR) sections on the basis that more safety data is needed but to allow existing ALR sections to continue to operate,” he said.

“Surely, the existing sections should be rapidly reconfigured to keep the left-hand lane as a kind of hard shoulder.”

Labour MP Sarah Owen welcomed the government's decision but said it had “come at great cost".

Huw Merriman, chairman of the Transport Select Committee, said there has not been enough focus on making smart motorways safe.

The Conservative MP said more resources should have been channelled towards establishing enough “emergency refuge areas” to help drivers stay safe after their vehicle has broken down.

“I believe that we had too much focus on the extra capacity that removing the hard shoulder can give and not enough focus on making sure that there are emergency refuge areas which are close enough together, and that there is the stop vehicle detection technology which can close the lane down in a minute if a car is stranded,” he told Times Radio.

He said four in 10 drivers who experience a breakdown on a smart motorway with no hard shoulder do not make it to a refuge bay, a figure which he said is “just too high”.

“I do believe there was a dash for more road and there wasn’t enough focus on making that new technology safer,” he added.

“I’m pleased today that we will see those measures sped up in terms of their delivery, but I agree with you they’ve come too late.”

Updated: January 12, 2022, 11:43 AM