Smart motorways: 38 deaths in five years leads to a review of the network

Increase in deaths and a 20-fold rise in near-misses on M25 since the removal of the hard shoulder, revealed by a BBC Panorama investigation...

Smart motorways – what are they and how should I use them?

Thirty-eight people have been killed on smart motorways since they were first introduced in 2014. The BBC investigation also discovered that near-miss incidents on one section of the M25 in Hertfordshire had increased from 72 in 2014 to 1485 in 2019, five years after the road had been turned into a smart motorway.  

Smart motorways have either no physical hard shoulder or a hard shoulder that can be used as a live lane during peak traffic hours, in order to improve traffic flow. Although they have Emergency Refuge Areas, which cars that suffer a breakdown can pull into, these are a long way apart and can be blocked by lorries and other vehicles using them to take a break.  The consequence is that vehicles that break down can be stranded in live traffic lanes. 

Motorway breakdown

Broken down cars should be spotted by a radar car detection system, but the cameras to do this are currently only fitted onto two sections of the M25; on sections of motorway without them it takes an average of 17 minutes for a stricken car to be spotted and a further 17 minutes for assistance to arrive.  

The Freedom of Information (FOI) request made by Panorama also revealed that the radar car detection system on the Hertfordshire section of the M25 had been out of action for 336 days. 

An all-party group of MPs, led by Sir Mike Penning, the former minister who approved the original roll-out of smart motorways, will publish a report tomorrow calling for a halt to the introduction of new sections of smart motorway until more research has been conducted into their safety. The report accuses Highways England of a "shocking degree of carelessness". 

Talking to BBC Panorama, Sir Mike said that the pilot scheme he was told about, which took place on the M42, had Emergency Refuge Areas every 600 metres, but Highways England has since placed them as far as 2.5 miles apart on other motorways. He said: "They are endangering people’s lives. There are people being killed and seriously injured on these roads, and it should never have happened.”

The results of a Government review into smart motorways are expected to be released soon. It is believed they will advocate the introduction of radar cameras across the entire smart motorway network over the next three years, along with more lay-bys and the scrapping of dynamic hard shoulders, which can be also used as live lanes. 

What is a smart motorway and what should you do it your car breaks down on one? 

Smart motorways are a response to increasing congestion on UK motorways; they use cameras and remotely-controlled speed limit signs to control the flow of traffic, and many allow cars to be driven on the hard shoulder either all or some of the time.

The thinking behind them is to add an extra 33% of capacity to our motorway network at a fraction of the cost – in money and to the environment – of physically adding another lane to every stretch of motorway. They also improve traffic flow, helping to compensate for the £2 billion a year that the UK’s economy loses due to congestion caused by long-term underinvestment in roads and increased traffic volume.

At the time of writing, there are 200 miles of smart motorway and another 300 miles are being converted

Smart motorways – what are they and how should I use them?

What are the concerns about smart motorways?

The first smart motorways had ERAs every 600 metres, giving drivers plenty of safe havens to use in the event of a break down. In 2013, the Department for Transport decided all new schemes would be all lane running and that the distance between ERAs could be up to 2.5km (1.5 miles). The combination of these two factors led the emergency services and breakdown rescue providers to voice serious concerns about the safety of their staff and other road users.

Eighty-four per cent of drivers surveyed by the RAC felt that the hard shoulder was important in breakdown and accident situations and 82% said they would feel “very concerned” if they broke down in lane one – formerly the hard shoulder – of an all-lane running section of motorway.

Smart motorways have also had an impact on the ability of the emergency services to get to accident scenes because they no longer have a hard shoulder to drive along. They’ve developed a new strategy of closing the other side of the motorway and then driving to the accident.

What is a smart motorway?

There are currently three types of smart motorway:

1. Controlled motorway

This type of motorway has variable speed limits monitored via a regional traffic centre; vehicles can only use the hard shoulder in an emergency, such as a breakdown. An example of this is the western section of the M25.

2. Hard shoulder running

On this type of motorway, the traffic control centre allows vehicles to use the hard shoulder at peak times to ease congestion. When the hard shoulder is in use, a speed-limit sign is displayed on the gantries above it; when it’s not in use, they will show a red X.

It’s an offence to drive along a hard shoulder when the red X is showing; if you do, you may receive a fine. Junctions 7-9 on the M42 are operated in this way. There are emergency refuge areas (ERAs) at set intervals for vehicles to use if they break down.

3. All lanes running

Traffic uses the hard shoulder as a normal lane all the time on these stretches of motorway. They also have ERAs at regular intervals.

Smart motorways – what are they and how should I use them?

What rules must I abide by on a smart motorway?

There are two things to keep in mind. First, the ERAs on a smart motorway are for emergency use only, so you should not stop in them for any other reason, and once you’ve stopped there you shouldn’t pull back onto the motorway until the authorities tell you it’s safe to do so.

The other thing to remember is that it is an offence to drive in a lane with a red X on the gantry above it. While doing this is only likely to result in a warning letter from the police at present, there are plans to introduce fixed penalty fines in the future, so it’s best to get into the habit of leaving a closed lane as soon as you can.