Smart motorways are meant to make motorway driving easier by increasing the number of lanes available and regulating the flow of traffic.
But as part of doing this, they often take away the safety feature that most of us still expect to see on a motorway — the hard shoulder.
This lack of a spare lane, reassuringly empty should it need to be used in an emergency, has contributed to a number of deaths on smart motorways.
Smart motorways have no hard shoulder
Incidents on the M1 in South Yorkshire have received particular attention.
Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu had a minor accident on the M1 near Sheffield in 2019. That part of the M1 is a smart motorway where all lanes are in use so there’s no hard shoulder.
They’d pulled to the left of the motorway and were exchanging details when they were hit by a lorry.
Jeremy Richardson QC, the judge at the trial of the lorry driver, said that while it was not his role to conduct an inquiry:
“A hard shoulder strikes me as analogous to the emergency doors on an aeroplane or lifeboats on ships. One never hopes ever to use them, and most of the time you never do. But they’re there.”
David Urpeth, the coroner who carried out the inquest into the deaths, recorded a verdict of unlawful killing. He said that motorways without a hard shoulder carry “an ongoing risk of future death”.
Urpeth said that he would be writing to Highways England and the transport secretary asking for a review of smart motorways.
Mercer’s widow, Claire, is looking to get a judicial review of the decision to bring in smart motorways.
Nargis Begum died on the M1 smart motorway after the car she was travelling in broke down.
Nicola Mundy, the coroner who investigated Begum’s death, referred Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to see if corporate manslaughter charges were appropriate.
One of Mundy’s concerns was that it took 22 minutes for warning signs to be activated on the motorway.
The coroner also highlighted the fact that drivers didn’t realise that they had to report incidents and assumed that cameras would be monitored.
This point was also raised about the Mercer and Murgeanu case. They didn’t call emergency services after their collision.
Smart motorways are ‘unsafe and dangerous’
Alan Billings, the police and crime commissioner for South Yorkshire, has been a vocal opponent of smart motorways.
In January 2021 he wrote to the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, stating:
“I believe that 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.”
A YouGov poll at the start of this year found the majority of people agreed with Billings.
Some 64% of people polled thought that smart motorways were less safe than motorways with hard shoulders. The figure rose to 82% among the over-65s.
Why do we have smart motorways?
Widening motorways is expensive and time-consuming. As well as adding extra lanes you have to rebuild bridges and reconfigure junctions.
Smart motorways take advantage of something that’s already there: the hard shoulder.
The guinea pig for smart motorways was part of the M42. In 2006 it became a dynamic hard shoulder (DHS) motorway.
DHS motorways use the hard shoulder as an extra running lane, but not all the time. If it’s not being used there’ll be a red X displayed on the gantry above the lane.
Being caught driving in a lane with a red X could lead to a £100 fine and three points.
The next variation on the standard motorway is the all lane running (ALR) smart motorway. As the name suggests, here the hard shoulder is no more and has been replaced by a live lane.
On ALR motorways you’re expected to use emergency refuge areas (ERAs) if you need to pull over in an emergency.
The final and least contentious type of smart motorway is the controlled motorway, also known as a managed motorway. This retains the hard shoulder.
All types of smart motorways seek to prevent traffic bunching by using a variable speed limit to even out traffic flow.
Highways England says:
“Smart motorways have greatly increased the capacity of the country’s most important roads … they reduce congestion, make journeys smoother and support the economy.”
Emergency refuge areas
ERAs are laybys on smart motorways for people to use in an emergency.
The idea is that, if you’re in trouble, you get your car over to the left and pull in to the nearest ERA.
If you’re then able to carry on driving, you have to contact Highways England to help you get back on the motorway.
In the M42 trial area ERAs were placed 500 to 800 metres apart, which is typical for a DHS motorway.
But a Panorama programme in 2020 found that on some ALR motorways, the ERAs were as much as 2.5 miles apart.
The government has acknowledged that ERAs should be closer together and more noticeable.
Highways England has committed to having ERAs every mile on new smart motorways and every three-quarters of a mile if possible. ERAs are also now painted orange and signposted better.
Extra ERAs have also been added to the M25. A review into whether more need to be added to other current smart motorways is due to report in 2022.
What’s being done to make smart motorways safer?
The government has decided that one of the problems with smart motorways is that people are confused because there are so many different types.
So DHS motorways are being phased out. All DHS smart motorways are due to become ALR motorways by 2025.
And recognising it can take too long to close lanes when something happens on a smart motorway, technology will be installed to pick up problems quicker.
The radar-based stopped vehicle detection (SVD) technology scans the road for stopped vehicles. It then alerts the control centre.
The SVD is due to be rolled out to all ALR motorways by September 2022. The government has also said that no new smart motorways will open without it
The new SVD should mean that lanes with stranded vehicles in them are closed much quicker than at present.
The average time to close a lane when a vehicle becomes stranded is currently 17 minutes.
‘Go left’ government smart motorways campaign
Grant Shapps has conceded that people need to be better informed about smart motorways, saying:
“Many do not know exactly what a smart motorway is, and are not aware of when they are on one or not.”
In March this year Highways England launched its Go left! campaign to raise awareness of what to do when your car has a problem on a smart motorway.
The ad shows a driver who’s about to run out of fuel manage to get to an ERA.
The Highway Code is also going to be updated with information about smart motorways.
But it’s fair to say, hardly anyone looks at the Highway Code after they’ve passed their driving test.
And not every driver who needs an ERA on a smart motorway will have as much warning as the driver in the ad.
What should you do if you break down on a smart motorway?
Highways England has also updated its advice for if you break down on a smart motorway.
It says that most vehicles can be driven to an ERA when they have a problem.
Once in the ERA you should switch your hazard warning lights on. If it’s dark, put side lights on. In poor visibility, use your fog lights.
If it’s safe and you can get out with any passengers, leave the vehicle on the passenger side and get behind a safety barrier if there is one.
Take things you might need, such as phones, warm clothing and food and drink with you.
Pets are generally safer left in your vehicle.
Keep well away from your vehicle and moving traffic, even if it’s raining, cold or dark.
Look out for possible hazards such as uneven ground or debris.
Use the emergency phone in the ERA to get connected to a Highways England regional operations centre.
Or if this isn’t possible, call Highways England on 0300 123 5000 if you're unable to exit your vehicle.
What should do you if you’re stranded in a live lane?
You‘re less likely to have an accident with another moving vehicle on a smart motorway than a conventional motorway.
But the Department for Transport recognise:
“The risk of a live lane collision between a moving vehicle and a stopped vehicle is greater on ALR and DHS motorways.”
And Highways England figures from 2019 show that 40% of breakdowns on ALR motorways over the previous two years were in live lanes.
Highways England’s say if you can’t make it to an ERA then stay in your vehicle, keep your seat belt on, put your hazards lights on and call 999.
And if you see vehicles stranded in a live lane, don’t assume that Highways England knows about them.
What changed on smart motorways in 2020?
Highways England has been making sure that each smart motorway has frequent emergency areas. The M25 now has 10 more of these.
The emergency areas are coloured orange to ensure they’re more visible to drivers. Signage for these has improved too, so drivers will know where the next emergency stop area is.
The M3 and the M20 have ‘radar-based stopped vehicle detection’ or SVD. This technology can detect a vehicle that’s stopped.
Work is underway to get this technology on the M1 smart motorway stretch. But no new smart motorway will be launched without it.
Cameras across all smart motorways have been upgraded for better detection to help police offers people driving in a closed lane. These are usually marked with a red x.
But there’s still a lot of work to do. Highways England is now working towards completing all actions set out in the Highways England: Strategic Business Plan 2020-25 earlier than the 2025 deadline.