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How safe are smart motorways?

28 January 2021

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For some time there has been a lot of debate around the safety of smart motorways in the UK. An inquest into the deaths of two motorists who died when a lorry crashed into their vehicles, whilst they were exchanging details on a smart section of the M1, has led to the South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner (PCC) to write to the government to say smart motorways are ‘inherently unsafe, dangerous and should be abandoned’.

The coroner who worked on the inquest stated that smart motorways without a hard shoulder ‘carry an ongoing risk of future deaths’.

Dr. Alan Billings (South Yorkshire PCC) stated in his open letter to the Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Shapps that, “I believe smart motorways of this kind – where what would be a hard shoulder is a live lane with occasional refuges – are inherently unsafe and dangerous and should be abandoned.

“The relevant test for us is whether someone who breaks down on this stretch of the motorway, where there is no hard shoulder, would have had a better chance of escaping death or injury had there still been a hard shoulder – and the coroner’s verdict makes it clear that the answer to that question is – Yes.”

Despite the concerns raised over the safety of smart motorways the Department for Transport responded to Dr.Billing’s letter by saying that: “The stocktake [of smart motorways] showed that in most ways smart motorways are as safe as, or safer than, the conventional ones.

“The Transport Secretary has tasked Highways England with delivering an 18-point action plan to ensure they are safer still, and he has called an urgent meeting with the company to discuss their progress.”

How do smart motorways work?

A smart motorway is a section of a motorway that utilises traffic management methods to increase capacity and reduce congestion in busy areas of the road. This includes using variable speed limits to control the flow of traffic and using the hard shoulder as a running lane.

Smart motorways were developed with the aim of managing traffic in way that minimises the environmental impact, cost and time it would take to avoid the need to build additional lanes.

There are three types of smart motorway schemes:

  • All lane running scheme: This is when the hard shoulder is permanently removed and converted into a running lane.Lane one (formally the hard shoulder) is only closed to traffic if there has been an accident.
  • Dynamic hard shoulder scheme: This is when the hard shoulder is opened up as a running lane to ease congestion at busy times only.On these stretches of the road a solid white line is used to differentiate the hard shoulder from the normal carriageway. When the hard shoulder is open to traffic this will be signalled to motorists through overhead signs on the gantries.
  • Controlled motorway scheme: A controlled motorway has three or more lanes with variable speed limits, and have a traditional hard shoulder.Variable speed limits are displayed on the overhead gantry signs. When no speed limit is displayed the national speed limit is to be adhered to.

Are smart motorways safe?

The removal of the hard shoulder on smart motorways makes a lot of motorists feel like they are more dangerous than standard motorways. The change in speed limit on controlled motorways can also make road users feel like they need to break quickly in order to reduce their speed on time.

Highways England state that casualties on smart motorways have fell by 28% and the Department for Transport statistics show that 9 people were killed on smart motorways compared to 77 deaths on conventional motorways in 2018.

Highways England has also ran communication campaigns to educate drivers how to use smart motorways safely. There have been more signs put in place to direct drivers to the next Emergency Refuge Area (ERAs), which are also painted in orange to help motorists spot them.


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