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Written on 15th December 2020 by

, updated on 15th April 2021

Smart Motorways are to be expanded to cover a further distance of 138 miles. Increasing the capacity for the volume of traffic on motorways without the need for costly and destructive extensions, Smart Motorways are considered to be an effective way of expanding our existing motorway network.

But are Smart Motorways safe? Should the use of Smart Motorways be reconsidered in light of a finding that 44 people have died on Smart Motorways in the past 5 years?

What is a Smart Motorway?

Smart Motorways have been installed on a large number of our major motorways including the M42, M1, M6, M4 and M5. However, some people may not be familiar with Smart Motorways, or the different types of Smart Motorways in use.

Before considering what Smart Motorways are we should address how they differ from a traditional motorway. A traditional motorway is described as being three lanes of traffic with a hard shoulder. The main feature of Smart Motorways is the removal of/utilisation of the hard shoulder as an additional lane of traffic.

The Government considers that Smart Motorways are a necessary introduction to our network to deal with the fact that traffic which is expected to have increased by 60% by 2040.

  • Dynamic hard shoulder running
    The first type of Smart Motorway is known as a dynamic hard shoulder running.This involves opening up the hard shoulder as an additional lane of traffic to help to ease congestion during the busiest periods of time.
    The difference between a hard shoulder and the normal lanes of traffic is the solid white line which is used to differentiate the hard shoulder. In all running lanes of traffic there are broken white lines.
    In this particular type of Smart Motorway a Red X on the motorway gantry signs overhead indicate if the lane is closed and not to be used.
    In addition, these types of Smart Motorway have emergency refuge areas which are between 500 and 800 metres from each other.
  • All lane running
    This particular type of Smart Motorway was first trialled on the M25 and uses the hard shoulder permanently as an additional live running lane.Unlike the traditional hard shoulder, a broken white line indicates that it is a running lane and this particular “hard shoulder” area is only closed in the event of an emergency.
    In this type of Smart Motorway the refuge areas are approximately 1½ miles apart.
  • Controlled Motorway
    In this type of Smart Motorway the traditional hard shoulder is only to be used in an emergency and the lanes of traffic are controlled with motorway gantry signs. The gantry signs indicate a variation in speed limit during busy times, or when accidents, or breakdowns have occurred.These changes in speed limit are enforced by accompanying speed cameras.

Are Smart Motorways more dangerous than regular motorways?

In January 2020 BBC Panorama research identified that there had been 38 deaths on the Smart Motorway network in the last five years. Bearing in mind the percentage of miles of Smart Motorways this was considered to be quite significant. A more recent report from The Independent in November 2020 has increased this figure to 44 deaths in the past five years.

Concerns were raised by the House of Commons Transport Select Committee with regards to the all lane running Smart Motorways as “the attendant safety risks have not been fully addressed”.

The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, raised his own concern with regards to the publication of these fatalities and in March 2020 the Government announced an action plan to deal with Smart Motorways titled “Smart Motorway Safety – Evidence Stocktake and Action Plan”.

So what are the concerns about Smart Motorways?

Some of the main concerns regarding Smart Motorways include the emergency refuge areas being too far apart. This means that drivers are often stopping in a running lane because the emergency refuge areas are too far for them to reach. This puts drivers at risk of a collision in comparison to when the traditional hard shoulder existed, allowing them to remove themselves from the live running lanes.

It is also felt by some that Smart Motorways are not familiar to road users and that many do not understand the difference between a Smart Motorway and a traditional motorway, or how to safely use a Smart Motorway.

Some consider there is a greater risk on a Smart Motorway of a live lane collision. Within the Government’s March 2020 report it was stated “the risk of a live lane collision between a moving vehicle and a stopped vehicle is greater on ALR (all lane running) and DHS (dynamic hard shoulder) motorways. But the risk of a collision between two or more moving vehicles is lower”.

The report considers that even using a hard shoulder on a conventional motorway still involves a risk to personal safety and in comparison to hard shoulders, the emergency refuge areas used on Smart Motorways have had no evidence of fatal collisions since they were introduced in 2006.

So how can you help to prevent accidents when driving on Smart Motorways?

The guidance on reducing accidents on Smart Motorways follows a lot of the guidance for general use of the roads. This includes ensuring that your vehicle is well maintained and you have enough fuel.

Advice is that if you experience any difficulties whilst driving on a motorway you should exit as soon as you can to an area of safety. In the event that you break down on a motorway then if you have broken down in a live lane, pull over to the hard shoulder, or an emergency refuge area, you should put on your hazard lights.

As well as using the SOS phones in emergency refuge areas you can also contact Highways England on their telephone number 0300 123 5000 for assistance.

A part of the Government’s action plan for Smart Motorway safety includes a target to reduce the response time of motorway assistance from 17 minutes down to 10 minutes.

We are all probably familiar with a number of the Highways England campaigns to try and increase road safety. This includes their campaign on ensuring that you should never drive in a lane closed by a Red X. This Red X is indicated on the overhead gantries on motorways and failing to adhere to this can result in up to £100 fixed penalty and three points on your licence or a greater fine and points if appropriate.

As with all road use you should stick to speed limits to ensure safety and ensure that you are aware of and refreshed on the Highway Code. Remember that a hard shoulder is indicated by a solid white unbroken line and running lanes of traffic are indicated by broken white lines. If a hard shoulder is in use, ie if there is a speed limit on the overhead gantry of the hard shoulder identifying that it is open, then you should use another designated safety area if you need to stop in an emergency. Never use a hard shoulder if there is no speed limit or if there is a Red X.

Overall, it is important to remember that close attention should be paid when driving on any motorway whether a traditional or Smart Motorway to ensure road user safety.

The plan for more Smart Motorways

Despite a number of safety concerns about the use of Smart Motorways the Government are planning to introduce a further nine Smart Motorways over a total distance of around 138 miles.

In their action plan they have identified a number of action points to improve the safety of Smart Motorways. This includes scrapping the dynamic hard shoulder and deploying in greater volume the stopped vehicle detection system to ensure that stopped vehicles are detected at a much faster rate.

The action plan also set forward an aim to reduce the distance between emergency refuge areas to ensure that there was no more than one mile between these areas, or ideally three-quarters of a mile, to ensure easier access for drivers in an emergency.

A number of the emergency refuge areas have also been painted bright orange on the road surfaces as a way of allowing drivers to easily recognise these safe areas to stop. This is one of the action points identified by the Government. Together with a £5m national communications campaign the Government aim to ensure that motorists are more aware of how to use Smart Motorways.

The Government still considers that our motorways are some of the safest roads. The report referenced that in 2018 motorways carried 21% of the road traffic but had only 6% of the fatal collisions.

The concern now raised relates to the continuing introduction of further Smart Motorways when perhaps the issues surrounding their safety have not been fully realised or accepted.

A report by the Sunday Times on the nine projects suggests that the refuge areas are at distances of between 1.04 and 1.3 miles, which is greater than the maximum one mile proposed by the Transport Secretary and certainly greater than the preference of three quarters of a mile.

Should Smart Motorways be considered dangerous?

So should Smart Motorways be considered to be dangerous with their relatively high fatality rate based on overall mileage, or is the responsibility down to negligent drivers not paying attention to road signs, speed and general road usage? 

The report from the Government would appear to suggest that some of the blame can be laid at the door of the Smart Motorways, including in particular the dynamic hard shoulder motorways, but that motorists still maintain a responsibility to drive safely, cautiously and with due care and attention to reduce the risks of fatalities on our motorway network.

An example of this is the sad deaths of Alexandru Murgeanu and Jason Mercer who died when a vehicle crashed into the rear of their vehicle on a section of the M1 which did not have a hard shoulder.

The coroner recently reached a conclusion on their deaths of death by careless driving. However, he commented in reaching his conclusion that “I find, as a finding of fact, it is clear a lack of hard shoulder contributed to this tragedy”.

The Sheffield coroner, David Urpeth is expected to now contact the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, to call for a review into the removal of the hard shoulder on Smart Motorways.

We support the coroner’s call for a review of Smart Motorways. In our view any further expansion should be halted in order to prevent any further avoidable deaths or major trauma injuries until a thorough review has been undertaken.

There will undoubtedly be further breakdowns or minor collisions on our motorways and motorists need a safe place to be able to stop. What if the technology fails to warn other motorists of stationary vehicles in a timely fashion? The removal of the hard shoulder represents an unacceptable risk and is hugely dangerous to motorway users.

There were 44 deaths recorded on Smart Motorways in November 2020, an increase of 6 deaths since January 2020, when many of our motorways have been quieter due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With a huge increase in traffic expected over the coming years and traffic returning to normal after the pandemic, the Transport Secretary needs to act now to review Smart Motorways. We see first-hand the devastating impact that these accidents have on families and loved ones. Claire Roantree, Partner is our Serious Injury Team, is demanding a thorough review into Smart Motorways https://inews.co.uk/news/uk/smart-motorways-safety-work-drivers-deaths-836263.