Safety record of smart motorways revealed

Concerns have been raised about fatal incidents where vehicles stopped in traffic on smart motorways were hit from behind.

The smart motorway section of the M6 in Cheshire, between Knutsford and Middlewich
The smart motorway section of the M6 in Cheshire, between Knutsford and Middlewich

Smart motorways without a hard shoulder have a poorer safety record than conventional motorways for crashes involving stopped vehicles, new figures suggest.

People are twice as likely to be killed or seriously injured (KSI) in a stopped vehicle smash on an all lane running (ALR) smart motorway than on a traditional motorway with a hard shoulder, statistics published by National Highways indicate.

But the Government-owned company responsible for motorways and major A roads in England insists smart motorways are “our safest roads” overall for serious or fatal casualties.

Eight people were killed on motorways without a permanent hard shoulder in 2020, representing 0.64% of the 1,246 fatalities on England’s roads.

Concerns have been raised about fatal incidents where vehicles stopped in traffic on smart motorways were hit from behind.

National Highways said crashes involving stopped vehicles are a “very small proportion” of all motorway collisions, at 5.26% for ALR schemes.

There are three main categories of smart motorway:
– ALR: No hard shoulder.
– Dynamic hard shoulder running (DHS): The hard shoulder is opened as a live lane during busy periods.
– Controlled: A permanent hard shoulder, with traffic flow controlled via variable speed limits.

An annual average of nine people were killed or seriously injured in a crash involving a stopped vehicle on an ALR motorway between 2016 and 2020, at a rate of 0.19 victims per hundred million vehicle miles.

On conventional motorways, the rate was 0.09.

National Highways chief executive Nick Harris insists “safety is a huge priority for me” as he urged people to “look at it in the round” when assessing the data.

The figures show that the KSI rate for collisions of all types is lower on ALR smart motorways than on traditional motorways.

But a recent RAC poll of 2,652 UK drivers suggested that 62% believe hard shoulders should be reintroduced across the motorway network.

Mr Harris said Highways England has found that “people are more comfortable with the roads that are least safe”.

He wants his organisation to help road users “feel more confident and come to a better understanding”.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps published a smart motorways evidence stocktake and action plan in March 2020, which included 18 measures to boost safety and public confidence in the roads.

National Highways said it is “on track” to deliver the improvements, which include upgrading 95 cameras to enable automatic detection of vehicles ignoring red X lane closure signals by the end of September.

The cameras give police the ability to issue £100 fines to offenders without catching them in the act, as was the case previously.

National Highways said it will add to the 330 additional signs already installed to tell drivers of the distance to the next emergency refuge area.

It is also on course to complete the roll-out of radar technology to improve the detection of stopped vehicles in live lanes on more than 200 miles of smart motorways by the end of September.

AA president Edmund King said: “These motorways should never have been rolled out without these measures in place to start with.”

In January, the Department for Transport halted the development of new smart motorways without a hard shoulder until five years of safety data has been collected for schemes introduced before 2020.

This followed a report by the Transport Select Committee in November 2021 which said there was not enough information to justify continuing with new projects.

Smart motorways feature various methods to manage the flow of traffic, including using the hard shoulder as a live running lane and variable speed limits.

They were introduced in England in 2014 as a cheaper way of increasing capacity compared to widening carriageways.

Mr Harris said: “We’ve added 500 miles of lane without widening roads, so that’s been environmentally sustainable.”

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