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[NEWS] No new smart motorways until five years of safety data available

No new smart motorways until five years of safety data available

smart motorway

Government awaits clearer picture of safety before continuing roll-out; invests £900 million in existing schemes

No new smart motorways will be built in Britain until there is five years' worth of safety data available from those opened before 2020, the government has confirmed.

The announcement comes in response to widespread criticism that these roads are less safe than conventional motorways because the hard shoulder predominantly serves as a live lane and the replacement refuge areas are spaced far apart, providing drivers with fewer safe places to stop in the event of a breakdown.

The House of Commons Transport Select Committee called for the scheme's expansion to be halted in November, advising the government to collect five full years of safety and economic data from the 112 miles of smart motorways introduced before 2020.

However, while this data collection process is under way, National Highways will continue work on smart motorways already under construction, which the Department for Transport says will all open "with technology in place to detect stopped vehicles". Work on 'all-lane running' roads – wherein the hard shoulder is converted into a live lane – will be paused while a study is conducted into making them "simpler for drivers". 

Meanwhile, the government has pledged £900 million to improving safety on existing smart motorways, of which £390m has been allocated to installing more than 150 new refuge areas across the network by 2025. The government says this will create a 50% increase in the number of places to stop in the event of a breakdown. The rest of the money will be spent on new technology to detect stopped vehicles, installing concrete central reservations and other safety improvements.

National Highways says it will also "ramp up communications so drivers have better information about how to drive on smart motorways". 

These measures come in addition to those enacted as part of an 18-point 'Action Plan' to improve smart motorway safety in 2018, which increased the number of refuge areas and installed cameras to detect cars entering closed lanes - as indicated by a red X on the gantries.

The news was hailed as "positive, pragmatic progress" by the AA, which welcomed the move to introduce more refuge areas. It also noted that transport secretary Grant Shapps has agreed to investigate one of its own proposals from 2017: an 'emergency corridor' to allow ambulances, fire engines and police cars to quickly make their way through traffic jams in the absence of a permanent hard shoulder.

The AA recommends updating the Highway Code to advise drivers in the right-hand lane to pull over to the right, and drivers in the left lane to do the opposite, thereby leaving a clear path through traffic for emergency vehicles. 

Despite taking the Select Committee's advice on pausing the smart motorway roll-out, the government says it does not agree "with the view that smart motorways were rolled out prematurely or unsafely". Smart motorways, it says, "are subject to high standards of design, risk assessment and construction, followed by detailed monitoring and evaluation once opened to traffic".

As of April 2021, smart motorways had been linked to more than 38 deaths, and in September of that year an investigation by The Telegraph identified significant shortcomings in the management of such roads.

Staff at National Highways reportedly labelled the computer system for managing smart motorways 'Die Now' following three system crashes in four days, and more than a tenth of the roads' CCTV cameras – used for spotting stopped vehicles – were found to be broken or pointing in the wrong direction.

Commenting on the latest developments, National Highways CEO Nick Harris said: "We have listened to public concerns about smart motorways and we are fully committed to taking forward the additional measures the Transport Committee has recommended."

Shapps, meanwhile, said that although "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". He said pausing the roll-out and investing in existing roads will give drivers more confidence, and thanked safety campaigners "for rightly striving for higher standards on our roads".

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