Smart motorways might finally be getting smart

Government makes changes to smart motorways after intense criticism

The flawed scheme is undergoing long-overdue improvements

THE DEPARTMENT for Transport has announced an 18-point action plan comprising “measures to improve safety and public confidence” in smart motorways, after a long-awaited “evidence stocktake” found the chances of a stationary vehicle being hit by a moving one is higher when the hard shoulder is scrapped.

Smart motorways use technology to monitor and manage the flow of traffic to help keep it moving. Regional control centres activate and change signs and variable speed limits, and can open or close lanes. Many smart motorways do away with the hard shoulder in order to make full use of the width of the road, but operators will close a lane if a vehicle breaks down in it.

However, the lack of hard shoulder on smart motorways means that cars that break down do so in active lanes, at the mercy of the control centre. It can also make it extremely difficult for assistance to reach those in peril.

The 18-point plan is designed to reduce the chances of death or injury. On the many smart motorways where the hard shoulder has been removed — known as “all lane running” motorways — the DfT has pledged to increase the number of emergency refuge areas so that there is a place in which to pull over safely every mile at a maximum, or every three-quarters of a mile where feasible. In such cases, a car travelling at 60mph would pass a refuge area every 45 seconds.

Smart motorways that involve a “dynamic hard shoulder”, which sees the traditional emergency lane opened up to traffic temporarily during busy periods, will be abolished.

And a new “stopped vehicle detection” system will use radar to spot stationary vehicles within 20 seconds, enabling lanes to be closed to ensure the driver’s safety. The government says that this will be rolled out across the entire smart motorway network within 36 months.

According the the report, although collisions between moving vehicles are lower on smart motorways than traditional ones, in part due to the changing speed limits shown on gantries, an average of 11 people died each year on smart motorways between 2015 and 2018.

A Freedom of Information (FoI) request by BBC’s Panorama programme found that, on a stretch of the M25, the number of near misses had risen by twentyfold since the hard shoulder was removed in 2014. A near miss is defined as an “incident with potential to cause injury or ill health”.

BBC Panorama also obtained a 999 call made by a man who had broken down near Knutsford with his family in the car. Due to the lack of a hard shoulder, they were stranded in an active lane. During the call, a lorry can be heard crashing into the car at 50mph. On this occasion, the family members all survived.

The government insist, however, that smart motorways are either as safe as, or safer than, conventional motorways. It said: “Risks that are lower on smart motorways compared with conventional motorways include tailgating, rapid changes of vehicle speeds, vehicles drifting off the carriageway and vehicles being driven too fast.”

Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport, said: “I’ve been greatly concerned by a number of deaths on smart motorways, and moved by the accounts of families who’ve lost loved ones in these tragic incidents.”

“I am clear that there is more we can do to raise the bar on smart motorway safety. The extended package of measures I have set out will help rebuild public confidence in our motorway network and ensure that safety is firmly at the heart of the programme.”

While some industry experts welcomed the announcements, others questioned whether or not the new implementations are sufficient. RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes pointed out that two thirds of drivers say that they believe permanently removing the hard shoulder compromises safety.

“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,” he said.

He also pointed out that the review did not look into the spacing of red X signage indicating when lanes are closed. The RAC believes that signs are often spaced too far apart. “The difference between a driver seeing and reacting to a red X sign, or missing it, could literally be life or death,” he said.

Edmund King, president of the AA, said that the new measures are a “victory for common sense and safety.”

“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,” he said. “We applaud the current Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps MP, for instigating the review and taking this issue very seriously. We believe the intention to place ERAs at every three-quarters of a mile is a great outcome and what we have called for over the last decade.”

Responses have also been positive from those most heartbreakingly affected by Smart Motorways. Meera Naran, whose eight-year-old son Dev was killed on a Smart Motorway, said that she felt like “this is a small mother’s day present from Dev wherever he is,” according to the BBC.

However, campaigner Claire Mercer, 43, whose husband Jason was killed by a lorry on the M1 near Sheffield after he and another driver were unable to reach a refuge area, told The Daily Telegraph that Mr Shapps had “fudged it” and the technology he wants introduced has not yet proven effective.

“I feel this plan is a series of half-measures and compromises,” she said. “I don’t think the minister and his team have listened to the concerns of those who have lost loved ones because the hard shoulder has been removed.

“He is actually announcing more smart motorways — that means the loss of more hard shoulders and more deaths. The British public knows what he has not grasped — removing the hard shoulder kills, plain and simple.”

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