Public opposition against smart motorways builds
According to a YouGov survey nearly two thirds of respondents consider them to be less safe than conventional motorways.
The police and crime commissioner for South Yorkshire, Dr Alan Billings, has written an open letter to the government to say that smart motorways are "inherently unsafe and dangerous and should be abandoned” after two deaths on a “smart” section of the M1.
Nearly two third of Britons (64%) agree with Dr Billings in thinking that smart motorways are less safe. Of those surveyed, 57% opposed the use of all-lane running smart motorways, while 25% supported them and 18% said they had no opinion.
Billings said: “I believe smart motorways of this kind - where what would be a hard shoulder is a live lane with occasional refuges - are inherently unsafe and dangerous and should be abandoned.
"The relevant test for us is whether someone who breaks down on this stretch of the motorway, where there is no hard shoulder, would have had a better chance of escaping death or injury had there still been a hard shoulder - and the coroner's verdict makes it clear that the answer to that question is - Yes."
Almost 40 people have been killed on smart motorways in the last five years.
The police commissioner’s letter follows the findings of a coroner into the death of two men on the motorway. While the lorry driver in the case was convicted of careless driving, the coroner agreed with his argument that the tragedy would not have occurred had there been a hard shoulder.
In a separate enquiry, a coroner investigating the death of Nargis Begum, a grandmother from Sheffield who was a passenger in a broken-down vehicle on a smart motorway, said in a pre-inquest review that she would decide whether to refer Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
Highways England, a state-owned company which operates motorways and A-roads in England, may have a case to answer for corporate manslaughter or gross negligence manslaughter, she said.
Following a review commissioned by the transport secretary last year, the Government introduced a series of measures to help improve the safety of smart motorways. There was an admission that some risks are higher than on conventional motorways, for example the risk of a collision between a moving and stationary vehicle.
Highways England is to install more “stopped vehicle detection” technology across the smart motorway network, so that lanes can be closed more quickly when needed. It has also been given targets to speed up responses by traffic patrols, which have averaged 17 minutes to get to the scene of an emergency on smart motorways.
Funding for a public education campaign has been allocated, along with updates to the Highway Code, to help ensure drivers know the rules.
Dynamic hard shoulders will be phased out by 2025 – a move that the government says will reduce confusion, but also means there will be no hard shoulders at all on more UK motorways in future.
Why were smart motorways introduced?
Dynamic hard shoulders were introduced in the UK in 2006, while major motorways first started using all-lane running in 2014. The idea was to add capacity to the motorway network to deal with increasing traffic, without building additional roads – or even widening existing ones, which would involve more disruptive work.
Data analysed by the Department for Transport between 2015 and 2018, found the death toll on smart motorways by traffic volume has been slightly lower than on conventional motorways — possibly because speeds are often limited.
What do campaigners say?
While many campaigners call for a total ban on smart motorways, other motoring organisations accept that smart motorways are here to stay and welcomed the action plan, urging for rapid implementation of safety measures — particularly full detection technology.