Smart motorways ‘as safe as wider motorway network’: Highways England

09.56 | 9 October 2019 | | 4 comments

Image: Highways England

Highways England has strongly rebuffed a call by GEM Motoring Assist for the roll out of smart motorways to be halted until a ‘proper safety review’ has been completed.

In a press release published on 7 October, GEM Motoring Assist described the current smart motorway situation as ‘unacceptable’.

In response, Highways England has contacted Road Safety News with a request to publish the following points in order ‘to ensure a balanced and fair report’:

  • The Highways England strategic road network continues to be one of the safest in the world. It carries a third of all traffic and two-thirds of road freight equating to 95 billion road miles travelled per year.
  • Its own assessment shows the number of people harmed on the strategic road network continues to reduce – with falls in the number of collisions (8,846, 4.3% lower than 2017) and casualties (13,380, 5.9% lower than 2017).
  • Separate analysis of smart motorway all-lane running schemes continues to indicate that they are as safe as the wider motorway network.
  • In 2018, 1,784 people tragically lost their lives on Britain’s roads. 250 of those deaths were on England’s strategic road network of motorways and major A roads. Of the 250, 107 were on motorways.
  • Smart motorways have places to stop in an emergency, including emergency areas, hard shoulders on junction slip roads and motorway service areas. These are a maximum of 1.5 miles apart and Highways England has committed to reducing this distance on new smart motorway schemes (beginning construction in 2020) to one mile apart.

Richard Leonard, head of road safety at Highways England, said: “Safety is the top priority for Highways England and we urge everyone who uses our roads to make it theirs too. Any death, on any type of road, is one too many. 

“We’re working hard to improve England’s motorway and A roads and we need your help. 

“We all have a role to play to make sure we all get home, safe and well and we’re asking all drivers to make their own safety, and that of other people, the most important thing to think about when they travel. 

“Remember to check your vehicle, obey all signs and think about other drivers.”

What are smart motorways?
First introduced in 2014, smart motorways use variable speed limits to manage traffic and tackle stop-start congestion.

The hard shoulder is turned into an ‘active lane’, with gantry signs displaying a red X indicating if a lane is closed – usually as a result of a vehicle breakdown or in the event of a collision. 

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 hard shoulder to enable drivers to get further away from traffic.

However, Highways England has committed to reducing this distance on new smart motorway schemes (beginning construction in 2020) to one mile apart.

This is the second time in recent weeks that Highways England has defended the introduction of smart motorways, following criticism.

In early September, the Sunday Telegraph claimed that smart motorways had been dealt a ‘severe blow’ following four deaths in just 10 months on a section of smart motorway on the M1.

In response, Highways England said smart motorways are ‘designed with safety in mind’ and that driving on them is ‘simple and intuitive’.



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    Where is all the uproar about three lane 70 limit dual carriageways that don’t have a hard shoulder or frequent laybys? These are just as fast as smart motorways but don’t have the advantage of cameras to monitor situations or reduce the speed limit

    Andy, Warwick
    Agree (4) | Disagree (2)

    As a coach driver I travel on all motorways, I’ve seen the results of bad driving everywhere. The Smart Motorways are not smart, they can make things worse. M25 4 lanes no hard shoulder, lorry blown tyre. Because they shut 2 lanes to fix the motorway was completely at a standstill. Had there been a hard shoulder at least 3 would have been open. A lorry clipped a car m3 no hard shoulder, the car spun ending up head on to lorry in lane one.
    Lets gave hard shoulders on all motorways

    Anthony Rozee, Portsmouth
    Agree (7) | Disagree (0)

    That’s always been the case anyway Guzzi – engine failure at 70mph could happen in lanes 2 or 3 on a non-smart M’way with a risk of slowing and then stopping completely, with no chance of coasting safely across to the conventional hard shoulder.

    Hugh Jones, Cheshire
    Agree (5) | Disagree (4)

    If your engine unexpectedly totally cuts out (from a sudden fuel failure for example) at 70mph, how far will the average vehicle roll before coming to a stop? Will it go up to 1.5 miles to the next emergency area – not uphill it won’t, not on the flat if it is towing. May be free-wheeling downhill….

    Don’t turn a difficulty into a potential disaster.

    Guzzi, Newport
    Agree (8) | Disagree (2)

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