Government U-turn on smart motorways halts roll out for at least three years | Fieldfisher
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Government U-turn on smart motorways halts roll out for at least three years

The Government has finally halted the rollout of smart motorways until at least 2025 following the recent inquiry by the cross-party transport select committee.

Smart motorways were introduced to increase road capacity and reduce congestion by converting the hard shoulder to a live running lane. However, they have proven lethal, with Her Majesty's Coroners issuing three Prevention of Future Death (PFD) Reports against Highways England involving deaths arising from collisions on smart motorways, two of which became Fieldfisher cases.

Campaigners against smart motorways argue that without a hard shoulder, there is no place of safety to stop in the event of a medical emergency or mechanical failure. If the only means of avoiding a stationary vehicle in an active lane is to merge into another active lane, the inside lane of a smart motorway is effectively no safer than the outside lane.  

This suspension of the rollout follows a decision in March 2020 by transport secretary Grant Shapps to abolish 'confusing' dynamic smart motorways (where the hard shoulder is converted to a live lane during peak times), as highlighted in a previous post by Keith Barrett who represented the family of Dev Naran tragically killed on the M6 in 2018.

MPs on the transport committee have said that Shapps' 2020 decision was premature and based on insufficient evidence. The Government has now made a U-turn, pausing the conversion of seven dynamic smart motorways to all lane running (ALR) smart motorways while it assesses data, before deciding how to proceed.

It clearly does not believe that safety would be improved by reinstating the hard shoulder on motorways, a stand that is in direct contrast to popular opinion: a comprehensive study by the RAC of UK drivers' views on smart motorways and driver safety in 2021, concluded that '84 per cent of drivers think that safety is compromised by the removal of a hard shoulder'. 

Despite halting the schemes to convert stretches of the M3, M25, M40 and M62 to smart motorways until 2025, the DfT has said that smart motorways already under construction will be completed to avoid 'significant disruption' to road users. Schemes already underway include stretches of the M1, M4 and M5, due to conclude within the next two years.

The Government has pledged to spend a further £390m increasing the number of emergency refuge areas (ERAs) to more than 150 by 2025, in addition to the £500m already committed to retrofit more stopped vehicle detection technology, following Grant Shapps' 2020 report.

In recent cases dealt with by the PI team, neither of the vehicles involved in fatal collisions, both stationary for less than a minute, were detected by smart motorway monitoring systems and neither motorway on which the accidents occurred had a reliable automatic alert system in place to flag that a vehicle was stationary in the live lane.

Head of Personal Injury Jill Greenfield submitted a letter to the transport committee before the inquiry with details of the fatal cases we are dealing with and those left catastrophically injured as evidence against the safety of smart motorways.

The AA, which has loudly condemned smart motorways, has welcomed the result of the inquiry. Since January 2020, AA policy is not to stop on smart motorways to assist members, with roadside technicians told to head to an ERA and wait for Highways England to move the car instead. The RAC called the Government's recent announcement a 'watershed decision [and] an unqualified victory for drivers'. 

Chair of the transport committee Huw Merriman MP acknowledged that: 'It was clear that the public needs more reassurance that these motorways are safe to use'.  However, Mike Penning MP, former roads minister who initially approved several smart motorway schemes but has since criticised them, remained sceptical, stating: 'Either we are happy that all-lane running is safe or we’re not […] If there is any reasonable doubt, which there clearly is […] then we should stop using them'.

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