Are smart motorways dangerous? The safety issues around the highways explained after 38 deaths in five years

Are smart motorways dangerous? The safety issues around the highways explained after 38 deaths in five years
Are smart motorways dangerous? The safety issues around the highways explained after 38 deaths in five years

The UK’s smart motorway network is under scrutiny after an investigation revealed a soaring number of near misses on it, as well as a series of fatal crashes.

A BBC Panorama investigation found that the number of near misses on one section of the M25 where the hard shoulder had been removed increased 20-fold, and uncovered evidence of 38 fatalities on smart motorways in the last five years.

Many campaigners claim smart motorways are dangerous and increase the likelihood of a crash while the Government and Highways England insists they are safer than regular motorways with a hard shoulder.

Despite this, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps launched an urgent inquiry into their safety late last year.

Are smart motorways safe?

Motorways in general are the safest type of road in the UK. In 2018, they carried 21 per cent of all traffic but accounted for just six per cent of fatalities and five per cent of all casualties.

Overall, between 2014 and 2018 there were 503 deaths on UK motorways. The Panorama investigation found that 38 of these were on smart motorways, amounting to seven per cent of fatalities while smart motorways now account for around 17 per cent of the motorway network.

 

Highways England says that since opening, across nine ‘all lane running’ schemes the casualty rate has reduced by 28 per cent. And according to its assessment of the design for the latest generation of smart motorways, it estimates an 18 per cent reduction in risk compared to a conventional motorway.

However, those figures don’t cover existing “dynamic” hard shoulder motorways where the hard shoulder is only used as a live lane some of the time and which make up around 100 miles of smart motorway. The Government is poised to scrap further roll-out of these because of concerns over their safety.

More live lane breakdowns

Figures revealed by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Roadside Rescue and Recovery also show that breakdowns in live lanes on all lane running motorways occur nearly twice as frequently (38 per cent vs 20.43 per cent) as on normal motorways, increasing the risk of a collision.

When a breakdown is detected overhead signs warn approach drivers the lane is blocked but this requires a human operator or automated system to spot the breakdown, something the AA says can take up to 17 minutes.

The APPG warns that given the average response time to a live lane breakdown is a further 17 minutes and there is no hard shoulder, drivers on smart motorways are more exposed to the risk of collision than those on conventional motorways. Highways England argues that more than 100 people are killed or injured while stopped on the hard shoulder every year and smart motorways “eliminate this risk”.

roadside breakdown
Live lane breakdowns are twice as likely on smart motorways than those with a hard shoulder (Photo: Shutterstock)

Detection problems

Highways England’s broader estimates of safety improvements also rely on vehicle detection systems being installed and working properly, something exposed as problematic by both the Panorama investigation and the AA.

The APPG has pointed out that the stopped vehicle radar detection system which Highways England said would be rolled out to the whole network currently only covers 25 miles of the 400-mile network. Highways England’s own chief executive, Jim O’Sullivan, has admitted that, had this technology been more widely in place, lives may have been saved.

Data also shows that on roads where automated systems aren’t in operation it takes an average of 17 minutes for a stranded vehicle to be recovered.

The Panorama investigation also found evidence of one detection camera which had been out of service for almost a year.

motorway sign M25
Stopped vehicle detection systems are in operation on the M25 but have yet to be installed elsewhere (Photo: Shutterstock)

Dangerous distance between refuge areas

Those who want changes to the smart motorway roll-out also argue that the distance between emergency lay-bys needs to be reduced. They say that reducing the gaps between emergency refuge areas (ERA) would give drivers a better chance to get out of the live lane and avoiding a collision.

Original trials had ERAs spaced around 600 metres apart but later stretches of road have gaps of up to 2.5km. The APPG argues that given there are more live lane breakdowns on smart motorways, increasing the number of ERAs would reduce the number of drivers exposed to breaking down in a live lane.

The AA and RAC have also repeatedly called for less space between ERA, arguing that the current distances leave drivers at risk.

The RAC’s Nicholas Lyes said: “We have long said the distance between SOS areas was too big so we would welcome a commitment to install more to increase the chances of vehicles being able to reach one in the event of a breakdown.”

AA president Edmund King has also urged Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to reduce the risk of dangerous live lane breakdowns by agreeing to create more ERA.

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