Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has put the expansion of the smart motorway network on hold, following high numbers of road deaths and reports of ‘near misses’.
The rollout will be halted until the government has concluded a review, first announced in October 2019. This followed concerns about drivers who break down in live lanes with no hard shoulder.
“For me, we must make them at least as safe, if not safer, otherwise they cannot continue,” said Shapps.
“Any death on our roads is one too many, and our deepest sympathies remain with the family and friends of those who lost their lives,” a Highways England spokesperson said in a statement.
“The Transport Secretary has asked the Department for Transport to carry out, at pace, an evidence stock-take to gather the facts about smart motorway safety. We are committed to safety and are supporting the department in its work on this.”
It’s been a bad couple of weeks for smart motorways. Damning figures related to motorway deaths and near-misses, related to ‘all-lanes-running’ sections have drummed up a media furore. In total, 38 people have been killed on smart motorways in the past five years. An increase in near-misses of 2,000 percent was also reported on a section of the M25.
A group of MPs, led by the ex-minister who signed off smart motorway expansion, then published a damning report on the programme. Sir Mike Penning revealed that he wasn’t privy to the plan to extend the 600-metre distance between refuge areas – used for the trial-run on the M42 – to 2,500 metres.
“I feel I was totally misled,” said Penning. “They are endangering people’s lives. People are being killed and seriously injured on these roads, and it should never have happened.”
Smart motorway rollout halted: the RAC reacts
“The fundamental issues of SOS area spacing and stopped vehicle detection, raised four years ago, remain,” said RAC head of roads policy, Nicholas Lyes.
“We very much hope the current review results in some meaningful changes that give drivers confidence in all aspects of safety on smart motorways. The type of smart motorways that have been built in recent years differ enormously from those from those that were first introduced in England. On today’s ‘all-lanes-running’ smart motorways, hard shoulders have been permanently removed and SOS areas are spaced much further apart.”
“Short of reintroducing the hard shoulder, the introduction of the latest radar technology to detect stationary vehicles automatically, together with many more SOS areas and a large-scale public information campaign, should help make drivers feel more confident in the safety of the UK’s motorway network.
“A rethink in the design of smart motorways is clearly needed to bring consistency, reduce risks in breakdowns, and turn around plummeting public confidence. As it stands, we are not convinced that the current ‘all-lanes-running’ design is working and have reservations as to whether it should be the de facto standard going forward.”