What else for the already built smart motorways?

Part of the recently completed M4 smart motorway in Slough – Mark Kerrison

Before June 2019, Claire Mercer had no idea what a smart motorway was. Her husband Jason wasn’t either, she thinks. It is sad that he should have been killed by a truck while stopped on a stretch of smart M1 motorway near Sheffield with no hard shoulder.

Five years on, Claire from Rotherham is a passionate campaigner to abandon the deadly experiment in smart motorways.

After launching the Kill Smart Motorways campaign, Claire says thousands of people have shared their views, experiences and concerns about the scheme.

The Telegraph are also campaigning to end smart motorways, as are motoring organizations the AA and the RAC. So what now for a project designed as a cost-cutting way to increase motorway capacity?

Smart motorways have been abandoned. Almost…

In April 2023, after 18 years, a cost of over £3 billion and around 50 avoidable deaths, Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, decided that smart motorways should be abandoned. Or that the Government should have already put forward plans that cost the taxpayer £62 million for 14 new smart motorways, including stretches of the M1, M6 and M25.

The good news is that this will save around £1 billion. The bad news: with £2 billion spent, it looks like we’re stuck with the smart motorways that have already been built.

“They should be abandoned altogether,” Claire told us. “They’ve canceled the ones that haven’t been taken yet – so they’re not hurting anyone – and they’ve left the ones that are killing people. It makes no sense.”

What exactly are smart motorways?

The term covers three types of motorway. A controlled motorway uses cameras that activate a variable speed limit displayed on bridge signs for optimum traffic flow. He maintains a dedicated hard shoulder. These represent 7.2 per cent of the motorway network.

A hard shoulder dynamic run was introduced in 2006 and accounts for 3.3 per cent of the motorway network. These roads use the same cameras and variable speed limit signs but turn the hard shoulder into a “live” carriageway during peak capacity. Breakdown shelters are located between 0.3 and 1.6 miles apart.

In 2014, the entire hard shoulder became an active lane with all lanes running on 8.8 percent of the network. Again, there are refuges for emergencies.

The “smart” feature is that National Highways operators use cameras to monitor the motorways. They can adjust the speed limits, close any lane and reduce the speed limit if there is a breakdown.

Will existing smart motorways continue unchanged?

There are currently about 250 miles of each lane running smart motorways. There are no plans for these to return to regular hard shoulder carriageways. This is despite research by the RAC which suggests that more than two thirds of drivers (69 per cent) want the hard shoulder reinstated.

The government claims that bringing back the hard shoulder would be “significantly costly” and “too disruptive”.

But Rod Dennis from the RAC said: “The concerns people had about the lack of a hard shoulder now are not the same as before the 2023 decision to stop building all existing motorways.

“Our research showed that half of drivers (49 per cent) often avoid using lane one (the left lane) on all motorways because they are concerned about a stationary vehicle. Their whole point was to increase capacity – which they are not doing.”

What improvements will be made to existing smart motorways?

The government has ongoing research into smart motorways. It’s 2020 Smart motorways safety evidence inventory and action plan He cites various statistics which suggest that smart motorways are as safe as regular motorways.

Despite this, transport secretary Grant Schapps wanted to make smart motorways safer to “rebuild public confidence”. The government then pledged £900m for safety improvements.

These included stopped vehicle detection technology on all current lanes of a motorway. In 2023, National Highways claimed it was already detecting around 1,900 stopped vehicles per month.

National Highways Chief Executive Nick Harris said: “The latest safety data (2017-2021) continues to show that all three smart motorway types are overall safer than conventional motorways in terms of deaths or serious injuries.”

National Highways chief executive, Nick HarrisNational Highways chief executive, Nick Harris

National Highways chief executive, Nick Harris

National Highways also said it is also investing £105 million in all motorway lanes, including more variable message signs and a system to detect slow-moving traffic and automatically adjust bridge signals.

But AA president Edmund King said: “These are all things they should have done at the start, when it wouldn’t have cost us £900 million.”

Claire Mercer added: “None of these changes would have saved Jason.”

Lane running is a problem

The entire lane running without a hard shoulder was responsible for the death of Jason Mercer. Together with Alexandru Mureanu, 44-year-old Jason died when a truck plowed into them while they were exchanging insurance details on the side of the road after a minor accident.

But the following year, the government decided that instead of a dynamic hard shoulder, all smart motorways would run one lane. The RAC’s Dennis said: “They did that without consultation or explanation.”

A year later, the Transport Select Committee published a damning report claiming: “The government’s decision in March 2020 that all new smart motorways will be single lane motorways was premature.”

Even National Highways admits that there is a higher risk of a live lane collision with a stopped vehicle on smart motorways than those with a permanent hard shoulder.

Emergency zones are the most controversial part of smart motorways

When smart motorways were first discussed, emergency refuge areas for cars were zoned to be every 400 metres. By the time these motorways were completed, refuges were up to a mile and a half apart.

IAM RoadSmart charity director of policy and standards Nicholas Lyes said: “It stands to reason that if you permanently remove a hard shoulder from the motorway, it will be more dangerous to break down unless you reach a refuge area.”

Edmund King added: “I think this is a fundamental design flaw. And the DfT knew there would be more risks and fewer emergency areas. But it saves money. We said at the time that this would lead to deaths.”

Proving King’s point, in December last year, National Highways revealed it was to spend £390 million adding 150 emergency stopping areas across 11 stretches of motorway.

But Mercer objected: “What use is a refuge area for the emergency services? Jason’s accident happened at 8.12am His body was still on the side of the road at 5pm because the traffic was so bad the coroner couldn’t get through without a hard shoulder.”

Claire Mercer's husband Jason was killed in a crash on a section of the smart motorway on the M1 near Sheffield in 2019.Claire Mercer's husband Jason was killed in a crash on a section of the smart motorway on the M1 near Sheffield in 2019.

Claire Mercer’s husband Jason was killed in a crash on a section of the smart motorway on the M1 near Sheffield in 2019 – Danny Lawson

Technology doesn’t always work either

Relying on technology to find broken down cars sounds great in theory. But when that technology doesn’t work, chaos ensues.

Whistleblower disclosure for The Telegraph that the smart motorway computer safety system was shut down across the country on 19 January this year. This meant that control room staff were unable to control CCTV cameras, speed limits or use lane closures.

It resulted in a six-car pile-up on the M6 ​​southbound when a car entered the inside lane of a full lane. Those involved escaped with minor injuries. “Thank God, God was watching over them, because we certainly weren’t,” the whistleblower said.

Smart motorway speed camera on the M1 motorway,Smart motorway speed camera on the M1 motorway,

Smart motorway speed camera on the M1 motorway – alamy

The Office of Rail and Road monitoring agency says 89 per cent of stopped vehicles are now detected, although Yorkshire and the North East at 76 per cent are still below the 80 per cent target.

It’s an improvement on 2022 when smart technology didn’t see a third of vehicles break down. However, one in 10 drivers are still stuck alone.

What is the future of smart motorways?

We are now stuck with multiple schemes. The RAC’s Rod Dennis said: “It’s fantastic news. On the M6 ​​it goes from three regular lanes to a dynamic hard shoulder to passing all lanes. It’s so confusing for drivers.”

The AA agrees with the RAC that smart motorways should be abandoned as quickly as possible. Edmund King said: “They could change every running lane to a dynamic hard shoulder quite easily. Then adjust the criteria so that the hard shoulder is only used when the average speed is significantly reduced by the weight of traffic.”

Although the current government is sticking to smart motorways, if Labor wins the election, it is believed the party will abandon them. Labor MP for Rotherham Sarah Champion claimed motorway rescues were like “walking into a death trap”.

Labour’s transport secretary, Louise Haigh, wants hard shoulders to be reinstated. She said: “We know that smart motorways, with inadequate safety systems, are not fit for purpose and are putting lives at risk.”

All drivers should keep their fingers crossed that Labor sticks to that line if it wins.

What to do if you break down on a smart motorway?

Let’s put aside the dubious taste of an advertising campaign with men dressed as swatting flies, when the latter has happened to some of those killed on smart motorways so far. The message he was trying to convey was that drivers should keep left in the event of an emergency or breakdown on a motorway without a hard shoulder.

They should then exit at the next junction or other services, or go to an emergency location. But what if you can’t reach one of the shelters?

Government advice is to move the vehicle as close as possible to the left edge, boundary or skid. If you feel it is safe, exit the vehicle through the door on the left and stay behind the safety barrier. Then call 999.

If the car stops in a lane unexpectedly, drivers are advised to turn on their hazard lights and keep their seat belts fastened. The council then says National Highways will close the lane and send help.


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