Promises over ‘Smart Motorway’ safety were ‘broken’, say MPs

The Government decision in March 2020 that all smart motorways would be all-lane-running motorways was premature, says the Transport Committee. Data on the safety and economic performance of existing all-lane running Smart Motorway schemes were insufficient to reach that judgment.

In a new report, The roll-out and safety of smart motorways, MPs say that safety risks on all-lane-running smart motorways should have been addressed by the Government and National Highways before the motorway schemes were rolled out. Safety improvements to all-lane running smart motorways should have been delivered in a timely fashion. Instead, promises to prioritise improvements were broken.

The Committee concludes that the scale of safety measures needed to effectively and reliably mitigate the risks associated with the permanent removal of the hard shoulder on all-lane running motorways has been underestimated by successive Administrations, the Department for Transport and National Highways.

Limited post-opening data are available for many smart motorway schemes and especially for all-lane running motorways. The Office of Rail and Road observed that only 29 miles of all-lane running motorways have five years of safety data available and that much less information is available for the remaining 112 miles. Until five years of safety data are available for all-lane running Smart Motorways introduced before 2020, the Committee calls on the Department for Transport and National Highways to pause the roll-out of all-lane running Smart Motorways. Until then, safety data on new types of motorway must be treated with caution, says the Report.

The Committee previously reported on all-lane running motorways in June 2016, concluding that the trade-off on safety was an “unacceptable price to pay” for the benefits of all-lane running. The 2016 Report urged the Government not to proceed with its major investment in the motorways while “major safety concerns” existed. In response, the Department for Transport and Highways England promised safety improvements. In March 2020, the current Secretary of State initiated a stocktake of evidence resulting in an 18-point action plan. However, today’s report from the Transport Committee concludes that those steps do not fully address the risks associated with the removal of the hard shoulder.

The design of motorways and major roads can currently be altered without any independent assurance on safety by a regulatory body. Introducing changes to the design and operation of the Strategic Road Network should depend on a formal safety assessment by the Office of Rail and Road. The Office for Rail and Road exercises such a responsibility for rail; the Committee recommends it should be given a similar responsibility for roads.

Today, the Transport Committee calls on the Department for Transport and National Highways to: retrofit emergency refuge areas to existing all-lane running Smart Motorways to make them a maximum of one mile apart, decreasing to every 0.75 miles where physically possible.

They also said that the emergency corridor manoeuvre into the Highway Code to help emergency services and traffic patrol officers to access incidents when traffic is congested, and that the Office for Rail and Road must conduct an independent evaluation of the effectiveness and operation of stopped vehicle technology.

Beginning in September 2022, they said the Office of Rail and Road must evaluate the Department’s progress, particularly the incidences and response times for live lane breakdowns and educating drivers on the correct action to take.

Chair of the Transport Committee, Huw Merriman MP, said: “The Minister for Roads described England’s all-lane-running Smart Motorways as ‘the most scrutinised 141 miles of road in the world’. It is right we do so because lives have been lost and many motorists feel unsafe using them. More action is needed to demonstrate their worth.”

“Looking at the available evidence, Smart Motorways do appear to be safer than conventional motorways even once the hard-shoulder is removed. However, this evidence is also open to question. Only 29 miles of these all-lane running Smart Motorways have operated for over five years. It therefore feels too soon, and uncertain, to use this as an evidence base to remove the hard shoulder from swathes of our motorway network. The same evidence shows that other forms of Smart Motorways, where the hard shoulder is converted to a live lane at peak times of congestion, have lower casualty rates than removing the hard shoulder altogether. Despite this, the Government intends to replace these with all-lane running schemes.

“Some 40% of breakdowns on all-lane-running motorways take place in live lanes. This is too high. With stopped vehicle technology in place, it takes National Highways an average of one minute to close the lane. In 2016, our committee was told that this safety technology would be introduced for all new Smart Motorways ‘going forward’ and retrofitted for existing stretches.

“The former Chief Executive of National Highways told us in 2019 that a number of lives would have been saved had the technology been in place sooner. To be told that this technology is being delivered 12 months early, by 2022, is an extraordinary claim given it is now five years late.

“The Secretary of State for Transport and the Roads Minister have brought more urgency into this exercise. This action is welcome. The Government is right to focus on upgrading the safety of all-lane running motorways, but we’ve been here before. We’re not convinced that reinstating the hard shoulder on existing schemes is the answer, but the DfT must pause the rollout and take stock.

All-lane running motorways – the permanent conversion of the hard shoulder into a live lane for traffic – were first introduced on to the Strategic Road Network in 2014.

Controlled Motorways, which have a permanent hard shoulder with technology to regulate the speed and flow of traffic, have the lowest casualty rates of all the types of motorways on the Strategic Road Network. The report calls on the DfT to set out the business case for controlled motorways compared with all-lane running motorways.

Dynamic hard shoulder motorways use the hard shoulder part-time to provide an extra lane. MPs recommend trialling alternative ways to reduce driver confusion, such as introducing a more consistent approach where the hard shoulder is used at known times.