The national roll-out of a smart motorway network is to be put on hold until the government has completed a review.
This follows an investigation by BBC TV’s Panorama programme which revealed that 38 people had been killed on smart motorways in the past five years – often because they don’t have a hard shoulder and motorists who break down get trapped in speeding traffic.
What’s more, a Freedom of Information request sent by Panorama to Highways England revealed that on one section of the M25, for example, the number of near misses had been 20 times higher since the hard shoulder was removed in April 2014. In the five years before the road was converted into a smart motorway there were just 72 near misses; in the five years after, there were 1,485.
“We absolutely have to have these as safe or safer than regular motorways or we shouldn't have them at all,” Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Panorama.
Among the reforms being considered are scrapping dynamic hard shoulders, increasing the number of emergency lay-bys, and fitting radar across the whole smart motorway network to spot vehicles that have broken down immediately. At the moment, drivers have to wait about 17 minutes to be spotted, and another 17 minutes to be rescued, on average.
“Smart motorways undoubtedly increase capacity but they are not as safe as they should be,” RHA Chief Executive Richard Burnett said. “They need bigger and more frequent refuge areas and better signage to ensure drivers understand when hard shoulders are closed to active running.
"Panorama also made it very clear that many motorway users have no idea what smart motorways are – let alone understand how they work. This is extremely worrying. It’s essential that safety improvements include an effective system of road user education.”
Currently, around 200 miles of motorway have been converted to a smart motorway, about 10% of the total.