The Personal Injury team at Ringrose Law has been following the ongoing investigations and arguments surrounding smart motorways over recent months.

It has now been announced that any further roll-out of a specific type of smart motorway – the all-lane running system – will be halted for five years. It is said that this is to allow the time to collect more information on the safety of this specific system and make any already existing schemes safer for use. After this five year period, the Government will assess the data and make an “informed decision on next steps”.

We highlighted in a previous blog that there are three types of smart motorway:-

  • 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.
  • 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.

This announcement has come after the Government has accepted findings of a report published last year by the House of Commons Transport Committee. They stated that they were “not convinced” that the benefits of all-lane running motorways were enough to offset or justify the safety risk of permanently removing the hard shoulder on them.

The works that will be affected by this pause will include the M3, the M40/42 interchange, the M62 and the M25.

However, schemes that are already underway will still be completed and already existing stretches of this type of smart motorway will remain in place and unchanged. Therefore, the suspension will only be affecting those works that are yet to get underway.

It was also announced though, that in a bid to improve the smart motorway stretches already in existence, £900 million of improvements are to be made including £390 million towards providing more refuge areas and improving the technology that is used to detect hazards, such as stopped vehicles, on these systems.

It is important to note that the safety of motorways in general is not being disputed as they do account for far fewer casualties than the more minor rural and urban roads, despite the higher speeds.

What is being debated is whether smart motorways, specifically the all-lane running scheme that removes the hard shoulder completely and permanently, are more dangerous than conventional ones. This causes concern because it can lead to vehicles (and their occupants) being left stuck in a stream of fast-flowing traffic if they are unable to get their vehicle to one of the emergency refuge areas, as has been highlighted in the examples discussed in our previous blogs. This can become even more dangerous when the technology does not detect the stopped vehicle quickly or at all and therefore the lane remains ‘live’ for traffic to use.

However, hard shoulders themselves are not without their own safety risks – BBC News have highlighted that 1 in 12 motorway deaths occur due to a hard shoulder.

It is clear that all different types of motorways have their risks and their benefits and it is hoped that by pausing further construction of the all-lane running schemes, this will allow time for a full and thorough assessment to be made on how best to ensure the safety of the country’s road users.

To read the full ministerial statement released on 12 January 2022, please click here – https://www.gov.uk/government/news/smart-motorway-rollout-to-be-paused-as-government-responds-to-transport-committee-report

 

 

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