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17 Feb 2021
Adam Bate

Highways England urged to abandon smart motorways


Motorway at dusk

The Police and Crime Commissioner of South Yorkshire Police is urging Highways England to abandon smart motorways after another serious collision.

Smart motorways are sections of motorway that use traffic management systems to reduce levels of congestion. 

One of these methods is removing the hard shoulder and using it as an active traffic lane. 

This has always been a major concern for safety campaigners, as it leaves no refuge for cars that have broken down or stopped. 

Following a safety review last year, Highways England maintains that the motorways are as safe as they possibly can be.  

But this year, there has already been a serious crash on a stretch of smart motorway in South Yorkshire. 

The same stretch of motorway has had a number of fatal collisions in the last few years.

Now, safety campaigners, coroners and the police are urging Highways England to carry out another safety review - or even abandon the system completely. 


"Abandon" smart motorways 

Most of the serious or fatal collisions have happened on a stretch of the M1 in South Yorkshire, the most recent of which happened in February 2021.

There have also been fatal collisions in 2018 and 2019.

After an inquest into the collisions in 2019, coroner David Urpeth said that smart motorways come with an ongoing risk of future deaths.

Dr Alan Billings, the Police and Crime Commissioner of South Yorkshire Police commented:

"I do not believe there is anyone who uses this stretch of the motorway, as I do, who does not feel anxious when driving along it."

He is now urging Highways England to scrap the smart motorway system.

"I call upon the minister and Highways England to abandon this type of smart motorway before we have more serious injuries or fatalities."

In response, Highways England said it was determined to make smart motorways as safe as possible.

It has stated that it’s already addressing many of the safety concerns raised in its Smart Motorway Evidence Stocktake and Action Plan. 

To see the proposed safety measures, visit Highways England


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 in some cases, allowing vehicles to use it as a running lane. 

The changes have meant that cars must remain stationary in busy traffic while waiting for breakdown services or police. 


What safety measures are being introduced? 

Some of the safety measures that have been set out in the plan include: 

  • Abolishing the “dynamic hard shoulder” motorway configuration. This is where the hard shoulder is temporary and the rest of the time it’s an active lane. 

  • Increasing the use of camera technology to identify broken-down vehicles. 

  • Using cameras to detect motorists that are driving in any lane with a red x above it. The red x sign indicates a closed lane, and driving in these lanes is illegal and dangerous. 

  • 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. And the reasons why the smart motorways are being so widely introduced. 

READ MORE: Seven smart motorways announced as part of a controversial improvement plan


Will the new safety measures be enough? 

Nicholas Lyes, Head of Roads Policy at the RAC, said it was not yet clear whether the 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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