MPs to scrutinise future of smart motorways

10.22 | 26 February 2021 | | 3 comments
Smart motorway

Image: DfT, via Flickr

The Transport Committee has launched a new inquiry into the safety of smart motorways.

Smart motorways, which use variable speed limits and hard shoulder running to manage traffic and tackle stop-start congestion, have existed in England since 2002.

The most common type in the UK, all-lane-running (ALR), was introduced in 2014 and involves opening the hard shoulder permanently to drivers.

The schemes have been shrouded in controversy, with critics labelling them as ‘death traps’.

Only last month, the police and crime commissioner for South Yorkshire wrote an open letter to the transport secretary Grant Shapps and Highways England, calling for smart motorways to be abandoned “before more lives are lost”.

This was after an inquest heard the deaths of two men on a converted stretch of the M1 could have been avoided.

In 2019, 14 people reportedly died on smart motorways – compared to 11 deaths in 2018 and five the year before.

The transport secretary himself has concerns over the safety of the schemes.

Speaking to the Transport Committee earlier this month, Mr Shapps said he did not want to carry on with the system of smart motorways which he had inherited on coming into office.

The Transport Committee inquiry will investigate the benefits and safety of smart motorways, as well as their impact on reducing congestion.

In particular, the committee is looking for evidence on:

  • The benefits of smart motorways, for instance to reduce congestion on busy sections of motorway, and how necessary they are
  • The safety of smart motorways, the adequacy of safety measures in place and how safety could be improved
  • Whether ALR is the most suitable type of smart motorway to roll out or if there are better alternatives
  • Public confidence in using smart motorways and how this could be improved
  • The impact of smart motorways on the usage and safety of other roads in the strategic road network
  • The effectiveness of Highways England’s delivery of the smart motorways programme, the impact of construction works, and the costs of implementation

The Transport Committee is inviting written evidence until Friday 9 April. 

Huw Merriman MP, chair of the transport committee, said: “The DfT says smart motorways help us cope with a 23% rise in traffic since 2000, helping congestion. 

“The department’s own Stocktake report points to lower fatal casualty rates for smart motorways without a permanent hard shoulder than on motorways with a hard shoulder. The serious casualty rate is slightly higher.

“This message isn’t reaching the public, whose confidence in smart motorways has been dented by increasing fatalities on these roads. Road safety charities are also expressing concerns. 

“Will enhanced safety measures help? Will the public accept them following an awareness campaign? Or should there be a rethink of government policy?

“There are genuine worries about this element of the motorway network and we want to investigate how we got to this point.”



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    A breakdown in a live lane is going to be dangerous whatever the road type. What should now be under consideration is using today’s technology to improve communication. If every vehicle had the same safety hub fitted using mobile phone technology it would revolutionise how vehicle breakdowns are managed. The system could detect that a vehicle was stationary and warn vehicles immediately following behind. On screen in vehicle displays coupled with audio warnings would alert drivers to any hazards ahead.

    Derek Cozens, Hertfordshire
    Agree (0) | Disagree (1)

    Echoing Andy’s comment, the media-led hysteria about smart motorways overlooks the fact that a lot of other (non-Mway) ‘fast’ roads don’t have any safety refuge at all..they also have bends which you can’t see around, not to mention junctions and short on/off ramps..if any. The hazards have always been there.

    Hugh Jones, Cheshire
    Agree (2) | Disagree (3)

    Will the police and crime commissioner for South Yorkshire also be calling for 3 lane national speed limit dual carriageways to be abandoned?
    They have no cameras or variable speed limits at all, yet people have been driving on these for decades without complaining

    Andy, Warwick
    Agree (3) | Disagree (1)

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