The message from transport secretary Grant Shapps is unequivocally clear, dynamic smart motorways have no future on the UK road network.
Speaking to the BBC’s Panorama programme, Mr Shapps confirmed the Government’s smart motorway review – expected imminently – would spell the end for dynamic smart motorways, where the hard shoulder is opened to traffic during busy periods, but closed at other times.
Mr Shapps said: “I’m very unhappy about there being so many different types of motorway… it’s just too confusing.”
When questioned whether the review would see dynamic smart motorways scrapped, Mr Shapps replied: “To be clear, yes, that is exactly what I am suggesting.
“We absolutely have to have these as safe or safer than regular motorways, or we shouldn’t have them at all.”
Conventional smart motorways set to continue
There are two types of smart motorway currently being used in the UK. The second – arguably less controversial – is where the hard shoulder is open at all times.
The Government review looks set to fall short of scrapping smart motorways entirely, instead implementing improved safety measures for conventional schemes.
Broadly speaking, this will focus on two areas.
The first of which is RADAR – a vehicle detection system which can spot stranded vehicles as soon as drivers break down.
At present, this technology is only used on two stretches of smart motorway on the M25 – but there is a commitment to install on all stretches within three years.
It is hoped that RADAR will reduce the amount of time it takes for emergency services to reach a stricken vehicle – which according to the AA is currently in excess of half an hour.
The second measure, one that has long been campaigned for by critics of smart motorways, is reducing the distance between emergency refuge areas.
When smart motorways were first trialled on the M42 in 2006, the emergency refuge areas were located 600m apart.
According to last night’s Panorama programme, after the wider role out, in some cases this distance increased to 2.5 miles.
Highways England says emergency refuge areas are currently a maximum of 1.5 miles apart – and has committed to reducing this distance on new smart motorway schemes (beginning construction in 2020) to one mile apart.
Mr Shapps said: “I think they [emergency refuge areas] are almost certainly in some cases too far apart.
“People need to be passing these every 60 seconds driving at a normal speed.”
Former transport minister criticises Highways England
Smart motorways came under intense media scrutiny during 2019, following several high-profile collisions.
Despite this, Highways England has always maintained they are as safe as the wider motorway network.
Speaking on the subject in October 2019, Richard Leonard, the agency’s head of road safety, described safety as the ‘top priority’.
However, Highways England has come under fire from the former government minister who approved the roll-out of smart motorways in 2010.
Sir Mike Penning told Panorama he was misled about the risks of taking away the hard shoulder.
Mr Penning said: “The Highways Agency [now Highways England] said to me, if we use the technology we have got, we can do this safely – and the evidence from the pilot showed that.”
Mr Penning has a particular grievance over the decision to increase distances between emergency refuge areas.
“[Smart motorways] are endangering people’s lives, I think that’s the right thing to say.
“It’s not scaremongering, they are endangering people’s lives by not doing what they said on the tin – because they are not smart.”
Highways England said the plans to expand smart motorways were approved by ministers and that it is working to gather the facts about safety.
What do road safety stakeholders say?
Reaction to the Panorama programme has been positive from road safety stakeholders – particularly the Government confirmation that changes to the smart motorway network are set to take place.
Alan Kennedy, Road Safety GB executive director, said that any advancements in infrastructure and technology must not increase risk for people using the roads, adding that Road Safety GB welcomes the transport minister’s commitment to review the effectiveness of smart motorways.
The RAC said the Panorama report ‘shines a light on the huge concerns that exist about the safety of all lane running smart motorways’, adding that ‘it is now abundantly clear things need to change’.
Nicholas Lyes, RAC head of roads policy, said: “We have consistently called for the roll-out of stopped vehicle detection radar technology to quickly identify stranded vehicles and additional SOS areas to give drivers a greater chance of reaching one in the event of an emergency, thereby reducing the collision risk.
“Alongside this, enforcement of lanes closed with red X signs and a smart motorway public information campaign will help improve safety.”