Government announces smart motorway safety plans - do they go far enough?

Government announces smart motorway safety plans - do they go far enough?
The Government has announced an action plan to improve smart motorways following widespread public concern over the safety of these roads.

These controversial motorways have been criticised by motoring organisations as well as the general public, and while any moves to improve the safety of these roads will be welcomed, there have already been a string of fatalities and near-misses on smart motorways over the last five years, so for some, these measures will be too little, too late.

The Government's smart motorway 'action plan' includes:

  • abolishing 'dynamic hard shoulder' smart motorways, where the hard shoulder operates only part-time and is a live running lane the rest of the time
  • speeding up deployment of 'stopped vehicle detection' radar technology, so stopped vehicles can be detected automatically, and lanes closed more quickly
  • faster attendance by more Highways England traffic officer patrols
  • reducing the distance between places to stop in an emergency to ¾ of a mile where feasible
  • installing additional emergency refuge areas on existing smart motorways 
  • making emergency areas more visible

Reacting to the plan, RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: “Two-thirds of drivers tell us that they believe permanently removing the hard shoulder compromises safety in the event of a breakdown. 

"While it is welcome that the Government has listened to their concerns and undertaken this review, it remains to be seen whether these measures go far enough to protect drivers who are unfortunate enough to break down in live lanes.

"We don’t believe the main issue at hand here is the safety of smart motorways with ‘dynamic’ hard shoulders, given this type of motorway has not been built for many years and represents a tiny fraction of the overall motorway network.

"This is a red herring and in reality, there were never enough of these schemes built for drivers to get used to them before the switch was made, without any consultation, to building smart motorways that have the hard shoulder permanently removed.

"Only time will tell whether all lane running schemes really are an improvement over either controlled or dynamic hard shoulder motorways.

"The safe running of any smart motorway heavily depends on drivers being able to see, and react to red X signage indicating where lanes are closed.

"We are disappointed that the review has not looked at the spacing of red X gantry signage as we believe in too many instances signs are spaced too far apart, increasing the possibility of drivers not seeing them. The difference between a driver seeing and reacting to a red X sign, or missing it, could literally be life or death."

Mr Lyes continued: "On the basis all lane running smart motorways remain the default, the commitment to install stopped vehicle detection technology on the whole network is a positive step, but a three-year timeframe will feel like an eternity considering the concerns many drivers have about all lane running schemes.

"This is somewhat compensated by the promise of more Highways England patrol officers on certain stretches of smart motorway, but the key challenge must be to get live lanes closed as soon as possible when vehicles become stranded, so a priority should also be to have more cameras and more staff in control centres to monitor the network.

"Additional emergency refuge areas on the M25 is welcome, but we believe that the spacing standard must be applied across the board where practical.  The Government says it is considering a national programme for installing more refuge areas on the smart motorway network – we say that they should consider no longer and make it an absolute priority going forward.

"It is vital that drivers have confidence in the infrastructure they are using and we continue to urge the Government to take into account those with mobility issues for whom the advice of leaving the vehicle and getting over the barrier is not always practical.

"We welcome the Government’s commitment to allow roadside patrols and recovery workers to use red flashing lights – a step that we hope will improve the safety of roadside patrol and operators.”


Do you think these safety measures make you more confident on smart motorways, or do you still worry about breaking down on them? Let us know in the comments.

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