Scrapping smart motorways would mean buying land the size of 700 Wembley stadiums, claims Transport Secretary Grant Shapps

Undoing the controversial system of smart motorways would require land equivalent to 700 Wembley Stadium-sized football pitches, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has claimed as he admitted the roads were "anything but" smart.

Appearing in front of MPs, Mr Shapps was critical of many aspects of smart motorways, which use the hard shoulder as a running lane to increase capacity and using variable speed limits to control the flow of traffic.

But he hit back at the Sheffield coroner who this month called for a review of smart motorways after the deaths of two men on the M1 in 2019, saying he had already ordered a number of changes to be made last year as part of a so-called 'stock take'.

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Undoing the controversial system of smart motorways would require land equivalent to 700 Wembley Stadium-sized football pitches, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has claimed as he admitted the roads were "anything but" smart.

After recording a verdict of unlawful killing of Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, Sheffield Coroner David Urpeth said smart motorways without a hard shoulder carry "an ongoing risk of future deaths".

Mr Shapps said the report he launched last March into smart motorways wasn't widely noticed because it coincided with the start of the pandemic.

Among the 18 different measures announced at the time included abolishing 'dynamic hard shoulder' smart motorways, where the hard shoulder operates only part-time and is a live running lane the rest of the time.

Emergency areas where drivers can stop in an emergency have also been made more visible with a bright orange road surface and better signage and a £5m awareness campaign has been launched to help show drivers how to use the roads.

Asked about the coroner's verdict during by members of the Commons Transport Select Committee, Mr Shapps said: "It didn't appear to me that the coroner was aware of the smart motorway stock take, and the 18 points, all the measures that have been taken.

"Secondly, he may not have been aware of all of the facts, with regard to where people die on motorways. Sadly one in 12 fatalities, take place on the hard shoulder. No fatalities take place in emergency areas because they're set back from the road, they're monitored automatically by CCTV."

On the stretch of the M1 where Mr Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu died, the hard shoulder has been replaced by an active lane. The two men had stopped to exchange details after a minor collision when they were hit by a lorry.

Mr Shapps said since the stock take there had been a big improvement in 'stop vehicle detection' technology, so stopped vehicles can be detected and the lanes closed more quickly.

He said this technology wasn't due to be introduced for many years because there was only a single supplier and Highways England couldn't buy enough of the equipment.

He said: "I brought that forward several years at the stocktake, again this won't have been covered anywhere but I met with Highways England, put pressure on and we are bringing it forward again. We will have stop vehicle detection developed and installed next year on all of the network."

The Cabinet Minister, who took over in July 2019 from Chris Grayling, said fatality rates were lower on smart motorways than conventional motorways but he wanted to make them safer.

He questioned why the roads are called smart motorways "when they seem to be anything but" and said he wouldn't be building any more such roads in future.

But asked if he would scrap the existing system, he said to do this he would need to buy more land and accept restricted traffic.

He said: "And I've looked at this, it would require the equivalent land of 700 Wembley Stadium sized football pitches to somehow undo all this. We'd have to buy people's homes, we'd have to destroy acres of greenbelt, I don't see that there's a route through simply undoing and we've got to make what is there is safe."