Smart motorways ‘helping to improve road safety’ – Highways England

09.39 | 4 September 2019 | | 2 comments

Image: Highways England

Highways England has launched a staunch defence of smart motorways, following recent media criticism.

On 31 August, The Sunday Telegraph reported that plans to roll-out smart motorways across the country have been dealt a ‘severe blow’ – following four deaths on an adapted section of the M1 in less than a year.

In response, Mike Wilson, chief highway engineer at Highways England, said ‘motorways in this country are among the very safest roads in the world’.

He added Highways England would never carry out a major improvement scheme ‘without being confident that we would maintain or enhance this position’.

Mr Wilson said: “Evidence indicates that smart motorways are helping to improve safety. The first nine of the latest generation of smart motorways have reduced casualty rates by more than 25%.

“Smart motorways are good for drivers, adding vital extra lanes to some of our busiest motorways and making journeys safer and more reliable. 

“As with other roads, we monitor the safety performance of smart motorways and are rolling out enhancements to improve the road user experience.”

Why has Highways England spoken out?
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. They have emergency telephones and are wider than hard shoulders to enable drivers to get further away from traffic.

The Sunday Telegraph reports four people have been killed on a section of smart motorway on the M1 in just ten months. All the collisions happened after motorists failed to reach an emergency area on a 16-mile stretch of the northbound carriageway.

The widow of one of those killed – Jason Mercer – has revealed she will sue Highways England for corporate manslaughter, according to the newspaper.

Mr Mercer was killed by oncoming traffic after pulling over following a minor collision. 

Claire Mercer has accused Highways England of failing to provide her husband with a ‘safe haven’ – or have adequate systems in place to detect a stationary vehicle and close the hard shoulder to traffic.

Smart motorways ‘simple and intuitive’
Highways England says smart motorways are ‘designed with safety in mind’ – and that driving on such road is ‘simple and intuitive’.

Highways England points to a risk assessment of the design for the latest generation of smart motorways, which estimates an ‘overall 18% reduction in risk compared to a conventional motorway’.

It adds that feedback from road users show a ‘clear majority feel confident driving on a smart motorway’.

Highways England says the main things to remember when using a smart motorway are:

  • keep left unless overtaking
  • do not drive under a Red X
  • stick within the speed limit
  • know what to do if you break down

More information and advice about driving on smart motorways is available via the Highways England website.



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    I think the HE advice to Keep Left Unless Overtaking could cause accidents. Following this advice will put traffic into lane 1 which is exactly where a broken down vehicle is most likely to be. For Smart motorways I prefer to keep out of Lane 1 for this very reason. I suggest it is better to use all lanes and to allow overtaking on either side. This works well in the USA and I am sure there are people in HE with extensive experience of driving in the USA and of passing on either side.They could apply this experience to English Roads

    Robert Bolt, Saint Albans
    Agree (4) | Disagree (4)

    The original concept worked well – busy, slow traffics down then open hard shoulder. When light, close hard shoulder then allow speed up again.

    The problem is with ‘all lanes running’ – 24/7 when there is no need for an extra lane such as in the middle of the night when fatigue is a major factor. I can’t for a moment agree these are safer than before.

    Ben Graham, Reading
    Agree (12) | Disagree (5)

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