Smart motorways: ‘our safest roads’ or ‘compromising safety’?

08.17 | 13 May 2022 |

Image: National Highways

National Highways has hailed “good progress” on ongoing works to upgrade existing smart motorways, but two leading motoring organisations have questioned whether it is enough to reassure drivers about their safety.

Smart motorways have long polarised opinion – despite repeated assurances from National Highways that they are as safe as the wider motorway network.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps has himself expressed concerns and in March 2020 set out an action plan to ensure smart motorways ‘are as safe as possible’, particularly when it comes to accessing stricken vehicles, a point of contention among critics.

On 12 May, National Highways published its second year progress report, outlining work to increase the number safety cameras and complete the roll-out of radar-based technology that can spot a stopped or broken-down vehicle.

While welcoming the steps forward, both the RAC and IAM RoadSmart are questioning whether it is enough to convince drivers about the safety of smart motorways.

Nicholas Lyes, RAC head of roads policy, said: “While good progress is being made in upgrading existing smart motorways by installing stopped vehicle detection technology and more refuge area signage, the key question is whether these changes are enough to reassure drivers, many of whom firmly believe that removing the hard shoulder compromises safety.

“While the Government is keen to point out that all-lane-running smart motorways tend to have a better overall safety record than conventional motorways, the safety comparisons with other types of smart motorways are less impressive.”

Neil Greig, director of policy and research at IAM RoadSmart, said: “Statistics may show that smart motorways have fewer fatal crashes than conventional motorways, but far too many drivers don’t feel safe on them.

“It is vital that National Highways build on this report to keep the public informed and continue to raise awareness of how to drive safely on smart motorways, so drivers feel confident to use these major national routes rather than avoiding them and travel on riskier A-roads.”

What’s in the National Highways’ report?
The Government body says it is on course to upgrade almost 100 safety cameras to enable automatic detection of vehicles that ignore red X lane closure signals by the end of September, in a move to increase compliance.

National Highways also confirmed that it will add to the number of signs which inform drivers of the distance to the next place to stop in the event of a mechanical problem or emergency. To date, more than 330 extra signs have been installed.

In addition, the report says National Highways is on track to complete the roll-out of radar-based technology that can spot a stopped or broken-down vehicle on over 200 miles of All Lane Running (ALR) motorway by the end of September 2022.

Nick Harris, National Highways’ chief executive, said: “It is now two years since the transport secretary first published the smart motorway stocktake and today’s report shows that we are making good progress delivering on these ambitious recommendations. But we are not complacent.

“The latest data shows that, overall, in terms of serious or fatal casualties, smart motorways are our safest roads. We are continuing our work to make them our safest roads in every way. We will continue to build on the work already undertaken and continue to put safety first to help ensure drivers have confidence in the motorway network.”



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