The government is pausing the rollout of ‘all-lane-running’ smart motorways amid safety concerns.
The Department for Transport announced today (Jan 12) it is halting the expansion of all-lane-running smart motorways – where the hard shoulder is used as a live lane – until five years’ worth of data has been collected.
Once compiled, the data will be assessed to consider whether smart motorways are safe or not.
The 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.
In a November 2 report, the committee described the government’s decision in March 2020 that all future smart motorways would be all-lane-running versions as ‘premature’.
Concerns have been raised following fatal incidents involving broken-down vehicles being hit from behind due to a lack of a hard shoulder.
The government has pledged to improve safety on existing all-lane-running motorways, but relatives of people who have died on the roads have urged ministers to go further by reinstating the hard shoulder.
Claire Mercer, who husband Jason died in a smart motorway collision near Sheffield in 2019, said the government announcement was a missed opportunity.
She told the PA news agency: ‘We have had review after review after review into smart motorways and never once have they turned off the first lane while they investigate them.
‘Just turn off lane one and you’ve got your hard shoulder back.’
Her comments were echoed by Conservative MP Sir Mike Penning who claims he was misled when he supported the rollout of smart motorways in his role as roads minister from 2010-2012.
He said: ‘It seems illogical to me to decide to pause the rollout of new all-lane-running (ALR) sections on the basis that more safety data is needed but to allow existing ALR sections to continue to operate.
‘Surely, the existing sections should be rapidly reconfigured to keep the left-hand lane as a kind of hard shoulder.’
The Department for Transport said that for existing smart motorways and those already being built, extra emergency refuge areas and technology to identify stopped vehicles will be added where possible.
The department is committing £900m to upgrade them, including £390m to install 150 more emergency areas, representing around a 50 per cent increase in places for motorists to stop if they get into difficulty over the next three years.
Pausing schemes yet to start construction and making multimillion-pound improvements to existing schemes will give drivers confidence and provide the data we need
Carriageways that will now not be turned into all-lane-running motorways, pending the five-year safety data review, include the M3 J9–14, the M40/M42 interchange, the M62 J20–25, and the M25 J10–16.
But work will continue on stretches that are already in construction, as they are more than half completed, the government said, noting that stopping progress on them now would cause disruption for motorists.
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 conversion of seven dynamic hard shoulder motorways, where the hard shoulder is open at busy times, to all-lane-running motorways is also being paused, while alternative ways of operating them are being examined.
The government also agreed with recommendations that emergency refuge areas should be no more than 0.75 miles apart wherever physically possible.
In addition, it pledged to ‘revisit the case’ for installing controlled smart motorways which have a permanent hard shoulder and use technology to regulate the speed and flow of traffic instead of all-lane-running versions.
Edmund King, AA president, 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.
‘We would like further investigation, which the transport secretary has agreed to, of our proposal for All Lane Running schemes to revert to the hard-shoulder between 7pm-7am to avoid confusion and to offer a refuge to counter live lane collisions that happen at night.’
RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: ‘The safety of our motorway network is paramount and no policy decisions should ever risk making our fastest roads less safe.
‘Today’s decision to review a full five years of all the safety data and to look at all possible options with a fresh perspective should ensure our motorways can accommodate increased traffic volumes safely and – just as importantly – that the drivers using them feel safe doing so.’
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.