Smart motorways are to be overhauled by a series of measures aimed at improving safety and driver confidence.
These include abolishing the ‘dynamic hard shoulder’, building more emergency areas, and speeding up the installation of cameras that detect stopped vehicles.
The target is for a radar-based ‘stopped vehicle detection’ system to be installed across the smart motorway network within three years.
They can detect stopped vehicles within 20 seconds and then quickly close live lanes.
Earlier this year, it was reported smart motorways don’t always detect broken-down cars.
“In most ways, smart motorways are as safe as, or safer than, the conventional ones,” said transport secretary Grant Shapps in announcing the measures.
However, some risks are higher, he acknowledged – including the risk of a collision between a stationary and moving vehicle.
The action plan will “allow us to retain the benefits of smart motorways while addressing the concerns that have been identified”.
Mr Shapps acknowledged that dynamic hard shoulders are confusing. These are where the hard shoulder operates only intermittently, and is otherwise a live running lane during peak times.
This earlier type of smart motorway is no longer built and today only forms a small proportion of the overall network.
More significant measures include reducing the distance to emergency areas to around three-quarters of a mile, and to a maximum of one mile.
Today, they can be spaced up to a mile and a half apart.
An additional 10 emergency areas will be installed on the M25 and Highways England will investigate sections of the M6 and M1 where there has been a series of accidents.
The government also plans to spend an extra £5 million on campaigns to inform motorists about smart motorways and how to use them safely.
Launching later in 2020, these will include advice on what to do if drivers break down on a smart motorway.
Smart motorway action plan: industry reaction
RAC head of roads Nicholas Lyes said: “Two-thirds of drivers tell us that they believe permanently removing the hard shoulder compromises safety in the event of a breakdown.
“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.”
Road Haulage Association chief executive Richard Burnett said: “Mr Shapps is the first Secretary of State for many years who has listened to what we have to say and who is taking action.
“I am pleased at Mr Shapps’ announcement that an additional £5 million is to be spent on a national, targeted communication campaign to increase drivers’ understanding of how to use smart motorways properly.”
Regarding the number of safety areas, Mr Burnett said the RHA had “always considered there to be too few refuge areas following the initial pilot scheme on the M42 when they were 500m apart and we welcome an increase in their number.
“However, if smart motorways are to be smart, they should not have been rolled out before the ‘stopped vehicle detection systems’ were in place across the whole network. Waiting another three years is just too long.”
Mr Lyes agreed: “The commitment to install stopped vehicle detection technology on the whole network is a positive step, but a three-year timeframe will feel like an eternity considering the concerns many drivers have about all lane running schemes.”
The RAC did, however, praise a commitment to allow roadside patrols and recovery vehicles to use red flashing lights – “a step that we hope will improve the safety of roadside patrol and operators”.
Smart motorways: 18 new safety measures
- Abolishing the confusing ‘dynamic hard shoulder’ smart motorways, where the hard shoulder operates only part-time and is a live running lane the rest of the time
- Substantially speeding up the deployment of ‘stopped vehicle detection’ technology across the entire ‘all lane running’ smart motorway network, so stopped vehicles can be detected and the lanes closed more quickly
- Highways England is to accelerate its plans and install the technology within the next 36 months, setting a clear public timetable for the first time
- Faster attendance by more Highways England traffic officer patrols on smart motorways where the existing spacing between places to stop in an emergency is more than one mile, with the aim of reducing the attendance time from an average of 17 minutes to 10 minutes
- Reducing the distance between places to stop in an emergency to three quarters of a mile where feasible so that on future schemes motorists should typically reach one every 45 seconds at 60mph. The maximum spacing will be one mile
- Installing 10 additional emergency areas on the existing M25 smart motorways on the section of smart motorway with a higher rate of live lane stops and where places to stop in an emergency are furthest apart
- Considering a national programme to install more emergency areas where places to stop in an emergency are more than one mile apart
- Investigating M6 Bromford viaduct and the M1 at Luton, Sheffield and Wakefield where there is evidence of clusters of incidents. Where an intervention is considered likely to make a difference, we will look to make changes at these locations
- Making emergency areas more visible – all emergency areas will have a bright orange road surface, dotted lines on the surfacing showing where to stop, better and more frequent signs on approach and signs inside giving information on what to do in an emergency. These will be installed by the end of spring 2020
- More traffic signs giving the distance to the next place to stop in an emergency, so you will almost always be able to see a sign. Typically, these will be between approximately 330 and 440 yards apart
- More communication with drivers. We recognise that we could do more therefore we are committing to an additional £5 million on national targeted communications campaigns to further increase awareness and understanding of smart motorways, how they work and how to use them confidently
- Displaying ‘report of obstruction’ messages automatically on electronic signs, triggered by the stopped vehicle detection system, to warn drivers of a stopped vehicle ahead, this is currently being trialled on the M25 and then a further trial on the M3
- Places to stop in an emergency shown on your sat-nav by working with sat-nav providers to ensure the locations are shown on the screen, when needed
- Making it easier to call for help if broken down by working with car manufacturers to improve awareness of the use of the eCall ‘SOS’ button in newer cars to call for help
- We have changed the law to enable automatic detection of ‘red X’ violations and enforcement using cameras and we will be expanding the upgrade of smart motorway cameras (HADECS) to identify more of those who currently ignore the ‘red X’. The penalty is three points on the driver’s licence and a £100 fine, or the driver can be referred to an awareness course
- An update of the Highway Code to provide more guidance
- Closer working with the recovery industry on training and procedures
- Reviewing existing emergency areas where the width is less than the current 15 foot wide standard. If feasible and appropriate we will widen to this standard
- A review of the use of red flashing lights to commence immediately. We have listened to the calls for recovery vehicles to be allowed to use red flashing lights. We will commence work immediately on a review