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UK Government ‘Pauses’ Roll Out of Smart Motorways

The rollout of new smart motorway schemes will be paused until a full five years’ worth of safety data is available.

The UK Government’s Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: 

“While our initial data shows that smart motorways are among the safest roads in the UK, it’s crucial that we go further to ensure people feel safer using them.

“Pausing schemes yet to start construction and making multi-million-pound improvements to existing schemes will give drivers confidence and provide the data we need to inform our next steps. I want thank safety campaigners, including those who have lost loved ones, for rightly striving for higher standards on our roads. I share their concerns.”

A smart motorway is a section of a motorway that uses traffic management methods to increase capacity and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas.

These methods include using the hard shoulder as a running lane and using variable speed limits to control the flow of traffic.

blue suv on road
Photo by Megapixelstock on Pexels.com

In October 2019, Highways England revealed that an additional 300 miles of smart motorway without hard shoulders will be rolled out across England by 2025 – RAC

The UK Parliament’s Transport Committee recommended that the rollout of new ALR smart motorways  be paused until a full five years’ worth of safety data became available for schemes introduced before 2020. 

The UK Government will assess the data and decide on next steps.

Although available data shows smart motorways are comparatively the safest roads in the country in terms of fatality rates, while their rollout is paused,  smart motorways without a permanent hard shoulder are to be equipped with ‘best-in-class technology and resources’ to make them as safe as possible.

This will include investing £390 million to install more than 150 additional Emergency Areas so drivers have more places to stop if they get into difficulty – a 50% increase in places to stop by 2025.

The Transport Committee’s report stated that evidence suggests hard shoulders do not always provide a safe place to stop, and by reducing motorway capacity, they could put more drivers and passengers at risk of death or serious injury if they were to divert onto less safe local roads.

National Highways CEO Nick Harris said:

“We have listened to public concerns about smart motorways and we are fully committed to taking forward the additional measures the Transport Committee has recommended.

“While we pause those all lane running schemes yet to start construction we will complete the schemes currently in construction, we will make existing sections as safe as they can possibly be and we will step up our advice to drivers so they have all the information they need.

“We are doing this because safety is our absolute priority and we want drivers to not just be safer, but also to feel safe on our busiest roads.” 

While the Department for Transport will be taking forward all the recommendations set out in the Transport Committee’s recommendations, it does not agree with the view that smart motorways were rolled out prematurely or unsafely.

National Highways will also ramp up communications so drivers have better information about how to drive on smart motorways. 

While further data is being collected, National Highways will continue work to complete schemes that are currently in construction, which will all open with technology in place to detect stopped vehicles. These schemes are all more than 50% completed. Design work will also continue on those schemes already being planned, so they are ready to be constructed depending on the outcome of the pause. No preparatory construction work will take place.

Also, in line with the Committee’s recommendations, National Highways will pause the conversion of Dynamic Hard Shoulder (DHS) motorways – where the hard shoulder is open at busy times – into All Lane Running motorways, while it investigates alternative ways of operating them to make things simpler for drivers. National Highways will also install technology to detect stopped vehicles on these sections.

Independent road safety campaigner, Meera Naran, whose 8-year-old son Dev, died in a motorway crash on the M6 in 2018, said: 

“Conventional and smart motorways both have their risks and benefits. I welcome this pause in the rollout of smart motorways which will give us all a positive opportunity to assess the future of our motorway network.

“I’m encouraged by the commitment of £900 million to improve the safety of our motorways, following my campaigning since Dev died. However, I’ll continue to both challenge and work alongside the Department for Transport to ensure even more is done, including calling for legislation to be looked at for Autonomous Emergency Braking and further support for on-going driver education.”

The measures in the Stocktake and Transport Committee response represent over £900m of improvements in total, including £390m of new money for extra emergency areas, with the remainder of the funding delivering other measures such as Stopped Vehicle Detection and concrete central reservation barriers.