Smart motorways have been making a somewhat controversial appearance in the news headlines during the last couple of years. This is largely due to an incident in June 2019 whereby two men, who had been involved in a slight collision, stopped in the left hand lane of a stretch of the M1 to exchange details. However, the left hand lane was not a hard shoulder at the time and instead was an active lane of the motorway. Subsequently, a lorry using this lane collided with the two men and their vehicles, killing both individuals.

What is a smart motorway?

In 2019, it was revealed by Highways England that an additional 300 miles of smart motorway would be rolled out across England by 2025. A smart motorway uses traffic management methods with an aim to increase capacity and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas e.g. by using the hard shoulder as an active lane and variable speed limits.

There are three types of smart motorways, all of which make use of variable speed limits, they are:-

  • Controlled motorways – these have 3 or more lanes but they retain a traditional hard shoulder which is only used in a genuine emergency.
  • Dynamic hard shoulder schemes – these work by opening the hard shoulder as an active lane during busy periods in order to ease congestion. Overhead signage indicates whether or not the hard shoulder is open to traffic. Should drivers break down or be involved in an accident, there are emergency refuge areas at the side of the carriageway.
  • All lane running schemes – these remove the hard shoulder and convert it into an active lane permanently. This lane is only ever closed to the traffic if there is an incident and such closure will be indicated on overhead signage. As above, should drivers break down or be involved in an accident, there are emergency refuge areas at the side of the carriageway.

Why have concerns been raised and what are they?

There have been various concerns raised by road users relating to the further roll out of smart motorways.

Firstly, there are concerns that the sudden variable speed limit changes can cause sudden braking by drivers in order to reduce their speed in time before they reach the speed cameras which enforce the variable limits. Highways England have stated there is a lag between when the limit is changed and when the cameras begin to enforce the change in order to allow drivers to reduce their speed sensibly.

The RAC conducted a survey called the Report on Motoring 2019 which revealed that 68% of those surveyed felt that removing the hard shoulder on motorways compromises safety. The RAC are one of many bodies who continue to argue for more changes to be made to the smart motorways system to make them safer, especially on the all lane running schemes where the hard shoulder is removed permanently.

On the other hand, Highways England argued that since the first smart motorway opened in 2006, journey reliability has improved by 22% and personal injury related accidents have been reduced by more than half.

Most recently, the other major argument – that not having a fixed hard shoulder makes the smart motorways dangerous – has been gathering pace. Further to the incident referenced at the beginning of this article, the family of one of the individuals who passed away has long been campaigning against the use of smart motorways and also against the prison sentence given to the lorry driver.

On 19th January 2021, Sheffield’s coroner conducted an inquest into the deaths of the two individuals and called for a review into smart motorways within his conclusion that the lack of a hard shoulder contributed to their deaths.

He stated that the system of smart motorways presented an ongoing risk of future deaths and that he would be writing to Highways England and the Secretary of State for Transport to highlight his concerns.

The Head of Road Design for Highways England told the inquest that data showed “smart motorways had reduced casualty rates by 18% by one measure and 23% by another” and argued that whilst the removal of the hard shoulder was a hazard, this was offset by a range of safety measures.

Following this, the coroner of an inquest into the death of a woman in September 2018 on a different stretch of the M1, stated that he was referring Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service to establish if corporate manslaughter charges would be appropriate.

After both of these coroners have raised their concerns, South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner released a statement within which he called the smart motorways “inherently unsafe and dangerous” and advised that he had called “upon the minister and Highways England to abandon this type of smart motorway”.

It was announced on 26th February 2021 that an investigation was being launched at Westminster by the Commons’ Transport Select Committee into the smart motorways scheme in response to the growing safety concerns.

It is clear that there are a large number of safety concerns over the system of smart motorways and that such concerns need to be addressed sooner rather than later to prevent a further loss of public confidence in the scheme. We await the results of the Westminster investigation.

Smart motorways have been making a somewhat controversial appearance in the news headlines during the last couple of years. This is largely due to an incident in June 2019 whereby two men, who had been involved in a slight collision, stopped in the left hand lane of a stretch of the M1 to exchange details. However, the left hand lane was not a hard shoulder at the time and instead was an active lane of the motorway. Subsequently, a lorry using this lane collided with the two men and their vehicles, killing both individuals.

What is a smart motorway?

In 2019, it was revealed by Highways England that an additional 300 miles of smart motorway would be rolled out across England by 2025. A smart motorway uses traffic management methods with an aim to increase capacity and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas e.g. by using the hard shoulder as an active lane and variable speed limits.

There are three types of smart motorways, all of which make use of variable speed limits, they are:-

  • Controlled motorways – these have 3 or more lanes but they retain a traditional hard shoulder which is only used in a genuine emergency.
  • Dynamic hard shoulder schemes – these work by opening the hard shoulder as an active lane during busy periods in order to ease congestion. Overhead signage indicates whether or not the hard shoulder is open to traffic. Should drivers break down or be involved in an accident, there are emergency refuge areas at the side of the carriageway.
  • All lane running schemes – these remove the hard shoulder and convert it into an active lane permanently. This lane is only ever closed to the traffic if there is an incident and such closure will be indicated on overhead signage. As above, should drivers break down or be involved in an accident, there are emergency refuge areas at the side of the carriageway.

Why have concerns been raised and what are they?

There have been various concerns raised by road users relating to the further roll out of smart motorways.

Firstly, there are concerns that the sudden variable speed limit changes can cause sudden braking by drivers in order to reduce their speed in time before they reach the speed cameras which enforce the variable limits. Highways England have stated there is a lag between when the limit is changed and when the cameras begin to enforce the change in order to allow drivers to reduce their speed sensibly.

The RAC conducted a survey called the Report on Motoring 2019 which revealed that 68% of those surveyed felt that removing the hard shoulder on motorways compromises safety. The RAC are one of many bodies who continue to argue for more changes to be made to the smart motorways system to make them safer, especially on the all lane running schemes where the hard shoulder is removed permanently.

On the other hand, Highways England argued that since the first smart motorway opened in 2006, journey reliability has improved by 22% and personal injury related accidents have been reduced by more than half.

Most recently, the other major argument – that not having a fixed hard shoulder makes the smart motorways dangerous – has been gathering pace. Further to the incident referenced at the beginning of this article, the family of one of the individuals who passed away has long been campaigning against the use of smart motorways and also against the prison sentence given to the lorry driver.

On 19th January 2021, Sheffield’s coroner conducted an inquest into the deaths of the two individuals and called for a review into smart motorways within his conclusion that the lack of a hard shoulder contributed to their deaths.

He stated that the system of smart motorways presented an ongoing risk of future deaths and that he would be writing to Highways England and the Secretary of State for Transport to highlight his concerns.

The Head of Road Design for Highways England told the inquest that data showed “smart motorways had reduced casualty rates by 18% by one measure and 23% by another” and argued that whilst the removal of the hard shoulder was a hazard, this was offset by a range of safety measures.

Following this, the coroner of an inquest into the death of a woman in September 2018 on a different stretch of the M1, stated that he was referring Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service to establish if corporate manslaughter charges would be appropriate.

After both of these coroners have raised their concerns, South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner released a statement within which he called the smart motorways “inherently unsafe and dangerous” and advised that he had called “upon the minister and Highways England to abandon this type of smart motorway”.

It was announced on 26th February 2021 that an investigation was being launched at Westminster by the Commons’ Transport Select Committee into the smart motorways scheme in response to the growing safety concerns.

It is clear that there are a large number of safety concerns over the system of smart motorways and that such concerns need to be addressed sooner rather than later to prevent a further loss of public confidence in the scheme. We await the results of the Westminster investigation.

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