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16 Mar 2020
Chris Torney Chris Torney

Smart motorways reviewed, but what's changing?

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Motorway at dusk

New safety measures have been introduced to improve the safety of smart motorways. Here's what's been announced. 

The government has decided to scale back its smart motorway plans after campaigners raised major safety concerns.

This week, Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, announced that the current system of opening hard shoulders on some motorways to traffic during peak periods was to be scrapped.

And on routes where the hard shoulder had already been converted into a live lane – known as “all lane running” smart motorways – a greater number of emergency stopping points will be added.

How do you feel about smart motorways? Let us know in the comments!

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Why are smart motorways dangerous?

The national smart motorway programme was introduced to boost capacity on some of the UK’s busiest routes.

But campaigners have long been unhappy about the safety implications of removing the hard shoulder or allowing vehicles to use it as a running lane in some circumstances.

The change has meant that vehicles which break down must often remain stationary in busy traffic while waiting for assistance from the breakdown services or police.

A recent report by the BBC’s Panorama programme found the introduction of a smart motorway configuration to part of the M25 had coincided with a 20-fold increase in near misses recorded by the transport authorities.

Announcing the U-turn, Shapps said:

“Overall, what the evidence shows is that in most ways, smart motorways are as safe as, or safer than, the conventional ones. But not in every way.

“To ensure we are doing all we can do to improve safety, I am publishing a package of 18 measures. This will allow us to retain the benefits of smart motorways while addressing the concerns that have been identified.” 

What safety measures are being introduced?

The safety measures include:

  • abolishing the “dynamic hard shoulder” motorway configuration, where the hard shoulder is used as a temporary running lane, for example during peak periods;

  • increasing the use of camera technology to identify broken-down vehicles;

  • reducing the distance between emergency refuges on “all lanes running” motorways to a maximum of one mile – and ideally three-quarters of a mile.

The government has also committed to improving communication with drivers to better explain how smart motorways work as well as why they are being so widely introduced.

Shapps added: “As part of our work we listened to the families who’ve campaigned on this issue, and I want to pay tribute to them.

"I’m also grateful to colleagues and groups like the AA and RAC who have pursued this issue and helped us reach this outcome.”

Read more: Smart motorways 'three times more dangerous' than regular motorways

Motorway at dusk

The government’s decision was welcomed by those campaigners. Edmund King, president of the AA, said:

“For the last decade we have been campaigning to improve the design and safety of smart motorways.

"The measures announced by the transport secretary are a victory for common sense and safety. The fact that 38% of breakdowns happen in live lanes on smart motorways means drivers have been at risk.

"Tragically people have lost their lives, and in some cases, coroners have indicated this could have been avoided.”

King added:

“No driver wants to be stuck in a live lane with nowhere to go; at best it is incredibly distressing, at worst it can be fatal.

"We are committed to ensuring smart motorways work for drivers and that drivers understand how to use them.”

Read more: Safety tips for driving in the dark

Will the new safety measures be enough?

Meanwhile Nicholas Lyes, head of roads policy at the RAC, said it was not yet clear whether these new measures would be adequate.

“Two-thirds of drivers tell us that they believe permanently removing the hard shoulder compromises safety in the event of a breakdown,” he explained.

“While it is welcome that the government has listened to their concerns and undertaken this review, it remains to be seen whether these measures go far enough to protect drivers who are unfortunate enough to break down in live lanes.”

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