Are smart motorways safe? How many deaths have there been on all lane running roads - and are they dangerous?

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Why campaigners like Claire Mercer want smart motorways returned to conventional running as all new projects are scrapped

The government has scrapped all new smart motorway building in the UK, citing costs and a lack of public confidence.

The Department for Transport (DfT) confirmed that three planned projects would be abandoned along will 11 existing schemes which were paused as part of a safety review in 2022. Two other sections which are already near completion will be finished.

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The announcement comes less than a year after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to scrap the controversial road building scheme in the face of public and political opposition. During his leadership campaign he said “Smart motorways are unpopular because they are unsafe. We need to listen to drivers, be on their side and stop with the pursuit of policies that go against common sense."

It also follows the decision in January 2022 to pause all smart motorway construction until five years of safety data had been gathered in response to a report from the Commons Transport Select Committee (TSC), which said the roll-out of all lane running motorways was “premature”.

It highlighted ongoing concerns around whether the routes - which operate without a hard shoulder - are safer or more dangerous than conventional motorways.

How safe are smart motorways?

Most smart motorways do not have a permanent hard shoulder (Photo: Shutterstock)Most smart motorways do not have a permanent hard shoulder (Photo: Shutterstock)
Most smart motorways do not have a permanent hard shoulder (Photo: Shutterstock) | Shutterstock

The Department for Transport and National Highways say that smart motorways are, mile-for-mile, safer than conventional motorways but opponents say they put drivers at risk of collisions that could be avoided with a hard shoulder.

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The main concern among critics is that without a hard shoulder, there is a greater chance of a vehicle breaking down in a live lane and being involved in a collision with a moving vehicle.

National Highways, which operates England’s motorway network, confirms that the risk of a “live lane collision” between a moving vehicle and a stopped vehicle is greater on all-lane running (ALR) and dynamic hard shoulder (DHS) motorways. But, it says, the risk of a collision between two or more moving vehicles is lower.

Its latest data show there have been 63 fatalities on stretches of smart motorway between 2015 and 2019 and a BBC Panorama investigation showed near misses between broken down and moving vehicles on one stretch of the M25 had risen 20-fold since the removal of the hard shoulder.

However, data for 2015 to 2019 shows that, on average, the fatality rates - calculated per hundred million vehicle miles (hmvm) travelled - are lower on all forms of smart motorway than on conventional motorways, where 368 people died between 2015 and 2019.

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There are three types of smart motorway - controlled; dynamic hard shoulder and all-lane-running. The figures show that the rate on controlled motorways is 0.07 per hmvm, dynamic hard shoulder routes is 0.09 and all-lane running is 0.12. On conventional motorways the figure is 0.15 per hmvm.

However, the data also shows that in 2018 and 2019 the fatality rate on ALR roads - the government’s preferred type of smart motorway - was higher than on conventional motorways.

In 2018 the ALR fatality rate was a third higher - 0.19 per hmvm compared with 0.14 on conventional motorways - and in 2019 it was 0.14 compared with 0.13. DHS fatality rates were also higher in 2019 - 0.18 per hmvm compared with conventional motorways’ 0.13.

National Highways argues that its longer-term averages prove smart motorways are safer and that such figures are needed because “single year figures are too low and variable to draw consistent conclusions from”. However, in 2022 a Transport Select Committee report says that there was not enough evidence to draw a conclusion, leading to the initial pause to gather five years of data.

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Neil Greig, director of policy and research at safety charity IAM Roadsmart, said that despite the official figures, there was a “complete mismatch” between the theory and reality of smart motorway use and warned that currently “it looks like a smart motorway creates more chances for human error rather than fewer, and... the punishment is all too often fatal”.

The same National Highways data shows that serious injury rates are a tenth lower on conventional motorways than ALR routes and minor casualties are also higher on all three types of smart motorway.

What is being done to make smart motorways safer?

In March 2020, the Government announced an 18-point plan to improve smart motorways.

Among measures were scrapping “confusing” dynamic hard shoulder routes, increasing the number and visibility of emergency refuge areas, introducing new stopped vehicle detection (SVD) technology and spending £5 million on a driver education programme.

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The TSC report reinforced the need for more emergency refuge areas closer together, as well as the rapid rollout of SVD. It also called for ALR roads to revert to controlled motorways with a hard shoulder overnight - a suggestion welcomed by AA president Edmund King.

He said: “We have campaigned consistently for ERAs at least every three quarters of a mile and have been pushing for a rapid retrofit programme. With 38% of breakdowns on smart motorways happen in live lanes. If there are not enough refuges and not accurate enough technology to warn of the danger, drivers become sitting ducks.”

The DfT is also spending £900 million to improve safety on existing smart motorways, including spending £390m on additional emergency refuge areas, and upgrading stopped vehicle detecion technology.

Some campaigners want all hard shoulders reinstated, arguing this is the only way to make motorways safer. They include Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason was killed on a “smart” section of the M1. She welcomed the news that new scheme are being scrapped but said "we've still got half the battle to go" in having hard shoulders restored to smart motorways already in operation.

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Mr King also urged the government to reinstate hard shoulders, saying: "We are delighted to see the rollout of ‘smart’ motorways scrapped. We would also like to see the hard shoulder reinstated on existing stretches in due course.”

The DfT argues that hard shoulders themselves are not safe places for drivers, and the TSC reported agreed that: “The evidence suggests that doing so could put more drivers and passengers at risk of death and serious injury.”

Mr Greig also warned that a mixture of full- and part-time hard shoulders could actually make matters worse by confusing drivers.

He also said that despite the official data, many road users felt unsafe on smart motorways and called for urgent action to change this perception.

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He told National World: “No motorway can ever be 100% safe, and the hard shoulder was always a very risky place to be, but a moratorium on any more new smart motorways would allow full analysis of their performance to date and the chance to finally get it right.

“As a minimum that means implementing stopped vehicle detection technology, building more refuges, improving incident response and more road user education so people know how to use them.”

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