End of the road for dynamic smart motorways

10.26 | 28 January 2020 | | 6 comments

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.

Image: DfT

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.”



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    There is nothing ‘Smart’ about these motorways. Highways England have flouted the recommendations of having safe run-off areas every 500m to 600m. I have measured over a mile on the roads I have used and worse case 1.5 miles. In what way does this make any sense? Even the minimum 500m is dangerous. We need to end this now and not wait until a family of a member of parliament is affected before this awful idea is reversed.

    Daniel, Cambridgeshire
    Agree (3) | Disagree (0)

    It’s clear that most people don’t drive as they “should” do. But the magical re-education of the entire driving population to make them drive “properly” is just a denial of reality – it’s never going to happen. To paraphrase the Vision Zero idea – we need to move away from “Stupid people killing themselves on our excellent transport system” towards “Ordinary people being killed on our stupid transport system” – acknowledging that people make mistakes and behave in less than ideal ways. Mind you apart from major roads and M’ways Vision Zero looks pretty unlikely too…

    Gareth, Nottingham
    Agree (3) | Disagree (1)

    Quite right Bob.. the documentary turned a blind eye to the fact that too any drivers on the M’way do not look ahead, drive too close and too fast to avoid obstacles ahead – whether it be a stationary vehicle (in any lane) or simply debris in the c/way. Had there been a spate of similar fatalities on a Trunk road, I doubt that Panorama would have been interested.

    Hugh Jones
    Agree (4) | Disagree (11)

    That’s because Highways England bear the total responsibility for what is happening on the roads that come under their umbrella: Motorway, dual carriageways and main arterial roads not under local council control.

    There would be no need for increasing the number of lanes on motorways if the drivers were to obey simple rules of the road and understand the contents of the Highway Code. Highways England know that some 75% of collisions on their road and that includes motorways are of a rear end shunt nature and it’s this that needs to be addresses. Yes in heavy queues traffic will travel closer together but when collisions happen then because of the slower speeds involved generally little or no damage or injuries are sustained.

    However people will still drive too close together at speed say 50 mph and faster. To do so at higher speeds and still too close together is tantamount to tailgating and an offence in law as drivers will not be able to guarantee to stop in time before hitting the vehicle in front. It’s not just that it’s an offence, more importantly it’s putting ALL other motorways users in greater danger of losing life or limb. It’s Tailgating that needs to be addressed and in a much larger and more serious intervention than that which they did last year.

    By making four lanes instead of three we are in no way addressing the danger caused. Tailgating is the elephant in the room and until that is recognised then nothing will change be it three lanes of danger or four.

    Agree (11) | Disagree (4)

    What I took from the documentary was how the parameters used in the original tests that led professionals to believe this was safe are not being followed now by Highway Authorities. I.E. the distance between laybys has been significantly extended, electronic surveillance is not being used. In that event, Highway Authorities do have responsibility. One camera was out of action for 300 and something days.

    Philip Blake, Jersey
    Agree (8) | Disagree (1)

    Why is it that on any other road, a rear-end shunt when the following driver was driving too close, too fast, not looking ahead and not paying attention would not be the fault of the highway authority, but apparently on a M’way it is? Once again, it shows that too many drivers are neither alert nor competent enough to drive at M’way speeds for long periods.

    Hugh Jones, Cheshire
    Agree (14) | Disagree (19)

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