The Department for Transport said it will halt the rollout of new all-lane-running smart motorways – where the hard shoulder is used as a permanent live traffic lane – until it has collected five years of safety data for such schemes introduced before 2020.
The conversion of seven dynamic hard shoulder motorways – where the hard shoulder is turned on and off as a traffic lane in response to traffic flow – to all-lane-running motorways is also being paused.
The seven national schemes being affected by the decision include the M62 Junction 25 to 30 running to the south of Bradford and Leeds and the M62 Junction 20 to 25 scheme running from Rochdale in Greater Manchester to Brighouse in West Yorkshire.
Others affected include the southern stretch of the M1 between Luton and Milton Keynes and areas of the M3, M25 and M6.
National Highways had been aiming to convert all ‘dynamic’ sections of motorway into permanent all lane running motorways with no hard shoulder by March 2025.
But there have been growing concerns about the safety of such roads - sparked in part by a series of fatalities on a stretch of M1 smart motorway running through South Yorkshire where there have been several fatalities in recent years.
Warnings from coroners after deaths
In June 2019, Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, both died after a collision between their vehicles near Sheffield on the M1. After getting out of their cars to exchange details, they were both hit by a lorry. At an inquest, coroner David Urpeth said smart motorways without a hard shoulder carry “an ongoing risk of future deaths”.
In February 2021, coroner Nicola Mundy said Highways England should be investigated over possible manslaughter charges after Nargis Begum, 62, from Sheffield, was killed after her car broke down on part of the M1 with no hard shoulder. Her car was subsequently hit by another vehicle 16 minutes after her Nissan broke down but it took a further six minutes before warning signs were activated.
The Government’s 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.
The committee described the Government’s decision in March 2020 that all future smart motorways would be all-lane-running versions as “premature”.
For existing smart motorways and those that are already under construction, additional emergency refuge areas and technology to identify stopped vehicles will be installed where possible, the Government said.
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 multimillion-pound improvements to existing schemes will give drivers confidence and provide the data we need to inform our next steps.”
The Government said it will invest £390 million to install more than 150 additional emergency areas, representing around a 50 per cent increase in places to stop by 2025.
Change in approach is welcomed
Tory MP Huw Merriman, who chairs the Commons Transport Select Committee, welcomed the announcement.
“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.”
The Government also agreed with recommendations that emergency refuge areas should be no more than three-quarters of a mile apart where physically possible.
The move was welcomed by the AA motoring association, whose president Edmund King said: “The AA has been a major critic of ‘smart’ motorways in our campaign for over a decade to improve their safety.
“At last, we have a Transport Secretary who has made progress and taken a positive and pragmatic approach. He has today accepted many of the measures we have been calling for and our important demand that emergency refuge areas should be no more than three-quarters of a mile apart.”
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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