All new smart motorways scrapped due to safety concerns

The Government has cancelled plans for all new smart motorways, including 11 already under construction, due to a "lack of public confidence" in the all-lane running roads...

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

The Government has announced that all new smart motorways will be scrapped, including 11 that are already under development and three planned to be built between 2025 and 2030. 

An official statement released on 15 April gave two reasons for the move: “financial pressures” and “the current lack of public confidence” in smart motorways, which have been linked with a number of road deaths. It said £1 billion would be saved by not building any more. 

Commenting on the announcement, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said: “Many people across the country rely on driving to get to work, to take their children to school and go about their daily lives and I want them to be able to do so with full confidence that the roads they drive on are safe."

Although no new smart motorways will be built for now, the announcement did not rule them out completely, stating: "Cancelling these schemes will allow more time to track public confidence in smart motorways over a longer period."

This is in line with the decision made by the Government in 2022 that it will not start to convert any more motorways to smart roads until at least 2025, when five years' safety data for all schemes introduced before 2020 will be available.

Smart motorway

While road safety campaigners are pleased with the decision to scrap smart motorways, many think the Government should have gone further to protect road users by reinstating the hard shoulders on the existing stretches of smart motorway. 

Instead, it plans to continue with the £900 million scheme to install 150 additional emergency refuge areas on smart motorways so drivers of faulty vehicles have more chance of stopping in one of them rather than in a live motorway lane. 

The stretches of smart motorway already under construction that will no longer go ahead are: 

M1 junction 10 to 16 and 35a to 39
M3 junction 9 to 14 
M4 – M5 interchange 
M40 – M42 interchange 
M6 junction 4 to 10a and 19 to 21a 
M25 junction 10 to 16 
M42 junction 3A to 7  
M62 junction 20 to 30 

The M56 junction 6 to 8, and M6 junction 21a to 26 will be completed because they are already more than three quarters constructed.

What is a smart motorway?

There are more than 400 miles of smart motorway in England, and they were introduced in response to increasing congestion on UK motorways. They use cameras and remotely controlled speed-limit signs to control the flow of traffic. Many also allow cars to be driven on the hard shoulder either all or some of the time.

The thinking behind them is to add extra capacity to the motorway network at a fraction of the cost – in money and to the environment – of adding new lanes to every stretch of motorway.

They also aim to improve traffic flow, helping to compensate for the £2 billion a year the UK economy loses due to congestion caused by long-term underinvestment in roads and increased traffic volume.

REDFLEX Speed Cameras (Redflex)

There are 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. One example 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 is not in use, a red X is shown, and it is an offence to drive on a hard shoulder when the red X is showing. 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-lane running (ALR)

Traffic uses the hard shoulder as a normal lane all the time on these stretches of motorway. They also have ERAs at regular intervals. When a red X is shown above a lane on an ALR motorway, the lane is closed and should not be used.

What are the concerns about smart motorways?

The concerns relate to ALR and hard shoulder running motorways, which either have no physical hard shoulder or have a hard shoulder that can be used as a live lane.

Although they have ERAs that faulty cars can pull into, these are often 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

The first smart motorways had ERAs every 600 metres, giving drivers a number of safe havens to use in the event of a breakdown. In 2013, it was announced that all new schemes would be all-lane running, and that the distance between ERAs could be up to 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.

In response, National Highways – the organisation responsible for the smart motorway network – revised the standard once again, requiring that ERAs are three quarters of a mile apart where feasible, and no more than one mile apart in almost all cases. 

However, not all vehicles that break down can make it to an ERA. That's where stopped vehicle detection (SVD) comes in. SVD consists of camera systems that are designed to alert the emergency services when a car breaks down in a live motorway lane.

In May 2022, National Highways committed to accelerating the rollout of SVD technology to all-lane running sections of motorway. It succeeded in meeting this goal, but independent regulator the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) found that work needed to be done to ensure that SVD systems achieve the “required performance levels”. These systems have suffered repeated failures since they were introduced, preventing stranded motorists from being identified and protected automatically.

Smart motorways – what to do if you break down

The most recent known outage was in February 2023, when a software failure hit stretches of the M5, M6, M62 and M60, as well as the M1 north of Northampton. It caused signals to freeze and deactivated the SVD system. The signal failure meant that even once a stopped vehicle had been spotted, either by a patrol or on CCTV, overhead signals could not be used to close the affected lane.

A similar outage happened on 26 October 2022, causing signals on the M6, M1 and A1(M) to malfunction for several hours.

Another key safety target was the requirement for emergency services to reach stranded vehicles within 10 minutes, a vital measure that has the capacity to prevent collisions and deaths on smart motorways. It was initially set to be achieved by July 2021, but was not met until September 2022, when the average response time finally fell to 9 minutes, 49 seconds.

According to research conducted by the RAC, 84% of drivers feel that the hard shoulder is 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 so that they can use it to drive to the accident.

What rules must I obey on a smart motorway?

There are two main 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. Once you’ve stopped there, you should use the emergency phone in the ERA to call the authority in charge of the motorway. Stay in contact with the authority, and don’t pull back onto the motorway until they 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 (even if you can’t see any danger). If you’re caught doing so, you will receive a fixed penalty of up to £100 and three points on your licence.

Next: what to do if your car breaks down on a smart motorway >>

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