Smart motorways continue to polarise opinion – despite Highways England’s repeated assurances they are as safe as the wider motorway network.
By Edward Seaman
Assistant editor, Road Safety News
First introduced in 2006 (on the M42), smart motorways use variable speed limits to manage traffic and tackle stop-start congestion.
There are two types of smart motorway in the UK. The first, often referred to as ‘dynamic’, is where the hard shoulder is opened to traffic during busy periods. The second is where the hard shoulder is open all the time.
Gantry signs display a ‘Red X’ when a lane is closed – usually as a result of a vehicle breakdown or in the event of a collision.
Most of the controversy surrounding smart motorways relates to safety, with a number of high-profile collisions this year doing little to enhance public opinion or support.
So much so that earlier this month, GEM Motoring Assist described the situation as ‘unacceptable’ – calling for roll out of schemes to be halted until a ‘proper safety review’ has been completed.
On Wednesday (23 Oct) – while appearing in front of the Transport Committee – Highways England once again insisted the schemes are helping to improve road safety.
However, Jim O’Sullivan, chief executive of Highways England, conceded it was unlikely the organisation would build any more dynamic smart motorways because too many motorists do not understand them.
Following the evidence session, Grant Shapps, transport secretary, said he recognises concerns about smart motorways – and that the DfT would conduct an “evidence stock take” to gather facts and make recommendations.
What do the statistics show?
Highways England says smart motorways are designed with safety in mind, to be at least as safe as the conventional motorways they replace.
It points to evidence indicating that on the latest generation of smart motorways – of which there are 12 stretches – casualties have fallen by more than a quarter (28%).
This figure is based on three years’ data from two smart motorway schemes on the M25 and one year of data from seven other schemes across the country.
Meanwhile, DfT statistics show that nine people were killed on smart motorways during 2018 – compared to 77 deaths on conventional motorways.
A Highways England spokesperson said: “Our motorways are some of the safest in the world; they are three times safer than A roads and six times safer than single carriageway A roads.
“Smart motorways include more safety features than conventional motorways, including signs and signals, CCTV, and places to stop in an emergency every 1.5 miles.”
Findings ‘hardly a ringing endorsement’
Despite the Highways England evaluation, road safety stakeholders have doubts about the schemes.
IAM RoadSmart describes Highways England’s evaluation as ‘hardly a ringing endorsement for the millions of pounds spent so far’.
Neil Greig, policy and research director at IAM RoadSmart, said: “We have read with interest the substantial performance analysis published by Highways England on their new smart motorways, in particular the M25 sections completed so far.
“These reports show they are just as safe as existing motorways with hard shoulders and are delivering congestion benefits.
“While the reduced journey times are welcome these findings are hardly a ringing endorsement for the millions of pounds spent so far.”
The RAC Foundation says attention should be given to the number of ‘near-misses’ – as well as the casualty statistics.
Philip Gomm, spokesperson for the RAC Foundation, said: “The key question is whether the data shows that smart motorways are safer than traditional motorways with permanent hard shoulders.
“Highways England insists that it does. However, these are still relatively early days and a sharp eye must be kept not just on accident statistics but all breakdowns, each of which might be thought of as a near-miss.”
Public perception ‘crucial’
One of the biggest obstacles faced by Highways England is gaining public support for smart motorways.
More than half (53%) of respondents to a Twitter survey carried out by Road Safety GB did not believe that smart motorways are safe – although the small sample size should have course be taken into account.
Opinion can be swayed by the national media, with fatalities on these stretches of road being attracting significnat coverage.
In September, the Sunday Telegraph labelled the schemes ‘a risk to life’, following the deaths of four people on a section of smart motorway on the M1 in just 10 months.
The RAC Foundation believes stricter enforcement of Red X lanes is key to gaining public support.
Philip Gomm said: “Do people feel safe? The anecdotal evidence suggests that many do not.
“Central to turning around public opinion will be strict enforcement of the Red X and wider use of stopped-vehicle detection systems, though it is worth noting that such technology is not common on old motorways.”
In contrast, Highways England says feedback from road users shows a clear majority feel confident driving on a smart motorway.
In a survey published by Transport Focus – an independent watchdog – 64% of respondents said smart motorways provide ‘safer journeys’, with just 13% believing they are less safe.
Time for an awareness campaign?
Another factor which causes concern is the lack of knowledge among drivers.
Highways England’s own analysis of two sections of smart motorway on the M25 suggests that up to 20% of drivers are ignoring Red X signs.
Both IAM RoadSmart and RAC Foundation are calling for Highways England to implement educational campaigns.
Philip Gomm said: “There is the issue of driver awareness.
“People should know intuitively what to do when they use a smart motorway – especially when they have problems with their vehicle.
“But the vast majority of drivers will have passed their tests long before all-lane running and dynamic hard shoulders were ever thought of and Highways England needs to keep up its information campaign.”
Neil Greig said: “IAM RoadSmart are not calling for a moratorium on smart motorways but we do want to see them built in the way they were originally outlined to us and the travelling public.
“The lack of knowledge among drivers on key aspects such as Red X compliance is frightening.
“This means we expect 100% CCTV and traffic flow detector coverage, far more frequent refuges, high profile enforcement and ongoing education campaigns.”
What next for smart motorways?
The immediate future of smart motorways could hinge on the outcomes of the Government review, which was announced on 24 October.
Grant Shapps said recommendations are expected “in a matter of weeks” to ensure all motorways are “as safe as they possibly can be”.
Mr Shapps said: “I have asked my department to carry out, at pace, an evidence stocktake to gather the facts quickly and make recommendations.”
Meanwhile, Highways England says it remains committed to further improving the safety of smart motorways.
At present, smart motorways have emergency refuge areas a maximum of 1.5 miles apart – around 75 seconds of driving. The refuge areas have an emergency telephone and are wider than the hard shoulder to enable drivers to get further away from traffic.
However, Highways England has committed to reducing this distance to one mile apart on new smart motorway schemes (beginning construction in 2020).
Highways England also says it is enhancing emergency areas by installing extra signage, using the internationally recognised SOS text and marking the bays in a high-visibility orange colour to make them as easy as possible to spot.
A Highways England spokesperson said: “We remain committed to further improving safety.
“This will include, in smart motorway schemes starting construction from 2020, making places to stop in an emergency one mile and systems to detect stopped vehicles being standard.
“We also urge all drivers to check their vehicles before setting out on a journey and if they do get into difficulty to follow breakdown advice.”