Since smart motorways were introduced in the UK in 2006, they have sparked controversy. This concept was introduced to create much-needed capacity across critical parts of the congested road network.
But the removal of the usual hard shoulder – the lanes near most highways are often restricted to emergency use – has been blamed for the deaths of troubled motorists.
Rishi Sunak’s government now says plans to build new smart highways will be scrapped “because of the current lack of public confidence in drivers and cost pressures”.
Eleven plans that are currently “on hold” – as well as future smart highways destined for construction between 2025 and 2030 – will now be discontinued.
The previous prime minister, Liz Truss, had vowed to phase out all smart motorways. This will not happen; Existing smart highways will continue to operate, with safety improvements.
But what will this decision mean for motorists – and road safety?
Who introduced smart highways?
Smart motorways were introduced in 2006 under the Blair government, with the first being opened on the M42 in the Midlands.
Lord Jordan, Labor Party peer – chairman of accident prevention charity, RoSPA – told Parliament during a debate in 2020: “On the first smart motorway test opened on the M42 in 2006, it has shown great potential to improve the situation given the growing congestion on UK motorways.
“Using technology, new techniques have been developed to better manage the growing traffic. Warning systems have eased and even prevented traffic jams, alerting drivers to congestion points and proving invaluable in emergency situations.”
After the test, millions of pounds were put into the planned expansion on roads such as the M1, M4, M5, M6, M60 and M62.
What is a smart highway?
A particularly busy stretch of highway where traffic management methods are used to increase capacity and reduce congestion.
There are three types:
- Variable speed limit – motorways have a default national speed limit of 70 mph but can be reduced to specific lower limits on overhead signs. The aim is to ease congestion and increase safety by regulating speed.
- Dynamic hard shoulder running – at busy times, stiff shoulders open up to traffic, adding extra capacity. Overhead signs indicate whether the lane is in use.
- All running lanes – hard curbs are permanently used as additional lanes, with emergency shelters intermittently installed to allow motorists experiencing mechanical or other problems to be protected from traffic. Since this plan began in 2014, 141 miles of all-lane highways have been created. If there is a problem, when “vehicle stop technology” is applied, National Highways will take an average of one minute to close the lanes.
Which highways are smart?
The M25 is completely smart. Some of the motorways it traverses, including the M23, M3 and M4, are smart for sections of the road near London. The M1 is smart most of the time between London and Leeds.
Parts of the M62, near Leeds, Bradford and Manchester, are smart. The M6 through Cheshire, Staffordshire and the West Midlands is smart, as is the distance (short stretch of motorway) near Birmingham on the M42 and M5.
What are the concerns?
Campaigners say 75 people have been killed on the smart highway, and some coroners have asked for a policy review. The Transportation Select Committee, which has studied smart highways extensively, has expressed serious concern about the risks they pose.
Meanwhile, stiff-shouldered dynamic motorways “clearly confuse motorists, as stiff shoulders are used in an unpredictable way to deal with congestion,” the all-party parliamentary committee said.
“A more consistent approach, where the stiff shoulder is used at known times, can clarify the situation for the driver without removing the hard shoulder.”
On all running lanes, the concern of MPs is that it makes it difficult for motorists to exit traffic immediately – there is not enough emergency shelter.
The number of deaths on highways without a regular attendant has increased from five in 2017 to 15 in 2019, the commission said.
“Other forms of smart highways, in which the hard shoulder is converted into a direct lane at times of peak congestion, have lower casualty rates than the complete elimination of the hard shoulder.”
Its recent report National highways should therefore halt the rollout of all-lane highways to collect more data, upgrade, and then evaluate the safety of the alternatives. run on all existing lanes and consider alternatives to increase capacity on the Strategic Road Network.”
Edmund King, president of the AA, describes the concept as “cheap widening of highways”. He told telegraphy: “At least 40 people paid the ultimate price. This is the scandal of smart highways.”
What did the minister decide?
“All motorists deserve to be trusted with the roads they use to travel across the country,” Mr. Sunak said.
“Many people across the country rely on driving to get to work, get their kids to school and go about their daily lives, and I want them to be able to do so with complete confidence that the roads they take Driving is safe.”
Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: “We want the public to know that this government is listening to their concerns.
“Today’s announcement means no new smart highways will be built, acknowledging the public’s lack of confidence in drivers and cost pressures due to inflation.”
The Government and National Highways have earmarked £900m for “further safety improvements on existing smart motorways”.
This involves installing 150 more emergency zones across the network and “improving the performance of stop-vehicle detection technology on all lanes of smart motorways”.
What will be the effect?
Compared to the situation when new smart highways are planned to go ahead, congestion is likely to increase and roads may become more dangerous.
Some drivers may switch to a less safe road A, increasing the risk to themselves and other road users.
The report by MPs on the Transport Select Committee concluded: “We do not believe that restoring a hard shoulder on all motorways running on all lanes will improve safety.
“Evidence suggests that doing so puts many drivers and passengers at risk of death and serious injury.”
Are there other ways to increase road safety?
Correct. If the driving age increases from 17 to 25 and motorcycles are banned, the death toll will drop drastically.
Drivers aged 85 and over were urged to take a second test because of safety concerns.
Financial moves could help – such as doubling fuel prices or halving rail fares.
But such moves would be politically impossible. In the long run, autonomous vehicles offer the best hope for reducing the number of tragedies on the road.