Government pauses smart motorway rollout amid safety concerns

The rollout of “all-lane-running” smart motorways is being paused amid safety concerns, the Government has announced, although critics say the move does not go far enough.

The Department for Transport has said it will halt the expansion of the motorways, where the hard shoulder is used as a permanent live traffic lane, until five years’ worth of data has been collected to assess whether or not they are safe for drivers.

It means that proposed changes to the M62, to turn it into an all-lane-running-motorway, between junction 20 and 25, will not be going ahead yet.

The decision follows a recommendation by the Commons Transport Select Committee which said there was not enough safety and economic data to justify continuing with the project.

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In a November 2 report, the committee described the Government’s decision in March 2020 that all future smart motorways would be all-lane-running versions as “premature”.

Concerns have been raised following fatal incidents involving broken-down vehicles being hit from behind due to a lack of a hard shoulder.

The Manchester Evening News reported in October last year that there were a ‘string of faults and glitches on the M62’.

This included ‘technical or manufacturing faults’, but was also claimed that issues around staffing and technology lapses led to delays in the control room reacting to break-downs.

This left cars stranded in live lanes ‘for over an hour’, according to a Highways insider.

National Highways admitted that there were problems on the stretch of M62 between the Croft interchange and the Eccles interchange including, 24 of the 36 roadside message signs being broken.

Two overhead gantry signs were left broken for over a month and two CCTV cameras were left unfixed until the M.E.N got in touch.

The M62 Motorway in Greater Manchester
The M62 Motorway in Greater Manchester

The Government has pledged to improve safety on existing all-lane-running motorways, but relatives of people who have died on the roads have urged ministers to go further by reinstating the hard shoulder.

Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “One of my first actions as Transport Secretary was to order a stocktake of smart motorways and since then, I have worked consistently to raise the bar on their safety. I am grateful to the Transport Committee and to all those who provided evidence for its work.

“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.”

Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason died in a smart motorway collision near Sheffield in 2019, said the Government announcement was a missed opportunity.

Mrs Mercer, from Rotherham, told the PA news agency: “We have had review after review after review into smart motorways and never once have they turned off the first lane while they investigate them.

“Just turn off lane one and you’ve got your hard shoulder back.

“You just need to throw one switch at eight control centres and you’ve got your hard shoulder back immediately.”

The campaigner said: “They’d take lots more steps a lot more quickly if it was their loved ones that were being killed or maimed.”

An emergency refuge area on a smart motorway
An emergency refuge area on a smart motorway

The Department for Transport said that for existing smart motorways and those already being built, extra emergency refuge areas and technology to identify stopped vehicles will be added where possible.

The department is committing £900 million to upgrade them, including £390 million to install 150 more emergency areas, representing around a 50 per cent increase in places for motorists to stop if they get into difficulty over the next three years.

Carriageways that will now not be turned into all-lane-running motorways, pending the five-year safety data review, include the M62 J20–25, the M3 J9–14, the M40/M42 interchange, and the M25 J10–16.

But work will continue on stretches that are already in construction, as they are more than half completed, the Government said, noting that stopping progress on them now would cause disruption for motorists.

The conversion of seven dynamic hard shoulder motorways, where the hard shoulder is open at busy times, to all-lane-running motorways is also being paused, while alternative ways of operating them are being examined.

The Government also agreed with recommendations that emergency refuge areas should be no more than 0.75 miles apart wherever physically possible.

Smart motorway
Smart motorway

In addition, it pledged to “revisit the case” for installing controlled smart motorways which have a permanent hard shoulder and use technology to regulate the speed and flow of traffic instead of all-lane-running versions.

Tory MP Huw Merriman, who chairs the Commons Transport Select Committee, said: “It was clear to our committee that the public needs more reassurance that these motorways are safe to use.

“With conflicting and patchy evidence covering a limited number of years, more time was required to properly assess the impact on safety.

“By accepting our recommendation to pause the rollout of smart motorways, the Government will have the weight of evidence to assist planning for future road building design.

“It is important that this extra time is not just spent on evaluation, it must be focused on making smart motorways safer.

“The existing network of smart motorways must be improved to deliver more emergency refuge areas and better technology to close live lanes and reduce the risk for stranded motorists.

“The addition of £390 million is a welcome statement of intent.”

Smart motorways were first introduced in England in 2014 as a cheaper way of increasing capacity compared with widening carriageways.

There are about 375 miles of smart motorway in England, including 235 miles without a hard shoulder.

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