In line with the Transport Committee’s recent recommendations, the rollout of new smart motorway schemes will be paused until five years’ worth of safety data is available, the Government has announced.
Once five years’ safety data is available for smart (all lane running) motorways introduced before 2020, the Government says it will “make an informed decision on next steps”.
The Government says that although available data shows smart motorways are “comparatively the safest roads in the country in terms of fatality rates”, it will nevertheless invest £900 million to further improve safety on existing schemes.
£390 million will be spent installing more than 150 additional emergency areas so drivers have more places to stop if they get into difficulty. This will represent around a 50% increase in places to stop by 2025.
The remainder of the funding will be used for other measures including stopped vehicle detection and concrete central reservation barriers. National Highways will also ‘ramp up communications’ so drivers have better information about how to drive on smart motorways.
Grant Shapps, transport secretary said: “One of my first actions as transport secretary was to order a stocktake of smart motorways and since then, I have worked consistently to raise the bar on their safety.
“While our initial data shows that smart motorways are among the safest roads in the UK, it’s crucial that we go further to ensure people feel safer using them.
“Pausing schemes yet to start construction and making improvements to existing schemes will give drivers confidence and provide the data we need to inform our next steps.
“I want to thank safety campaigners, including those who have lost loved ones, for rightly striving for higher standards on our roads.”
Welcoming the Government’s announcement, Nicholas Lyes, RAC head of roads policy, said: “This watershed decision is an unqualified victory for drivers, many of whom have deeply held concerns over the safety of motorways where the hard shoulder is permanently removed.
“Rather than ploughing on regardless in the face of mounting public opposition, we’re pleased the Government has finally hit the pause button and given itself time to fully consider the safety of these schemes, and the way our motorways are adapted to increase capacity from now on.
“We have long argued that dynamic hard shoulder and controlled motorway schemes – both of which feature a hard shoulder in some form – should be considered given their good safety record and it’s important these options are on the table.”
The announcement has also been welcomed by Road Safety GB, who said that all road safety interventions should be based on ‘robust data-led information’.
Bill Smith, Road Safety GB director of communications, said: “It is encouraging to see that, following extensive scrutiny by the Transport Select Committee, the DfT and National Highways have pushed forward without delay and adopted all of the recommendations in the Committee’s report.
“ Effective road safety interventions – whether educational, engineering or enforcement – should always be based on robust data-led information. Accordingly, policymaking should be founded on the same principles. Therefore, it is particularly encouraging to note that a full ‘before and after study’ will be undertaken to enable an informed decision to be made about all lane running on our motorways in the future.”
Meera Naran, an independent road safety campaigner whose 8-year-old son Dev died in a motorway crash on the M6 in 2018, said: “Conventional and smart motorways both have their risks and benefits.
“I welcome this pause in the rollout of smart motorways, which will give us all a positive opportunity to assess the future of our motorway network.
“I’ll continue to both challenge and work alongside the DfT to ensure even more is done, including calling for legislation to be looked at for autonomous emergency braking and further support for ongoing driver education.”
While DfT says it will be taking forward all the recommendations set out by the Transport Committee, it does not agree with the view that smart motorways were rolled out prematurely or unsafely.
DfT says smart motorway schemes are, and will continue to be, subject to high standards of design, risk assessment and construction, followed by detailed monitoring and evaluation once opened to traffic.
While further data is being collected, National Highways will complete schemes that are currently in construction, which will all open with technology in place to detect stopped vehicles.
Also in line with the Transport Committee’s recommendations, National Highways will pause the conversion of dynamic hard shoulder (DHS) motorways – where the hard shoulder is open at busy times – into smart motorways while it investigates alternative ways of operating them to make things simpler for drivers. National Highways will also install technology to detect stopped vehicles on these sections.