What are smart motorways and why are they controversial?

Protestors, many of whom have lost loved ones or been injured in accidents on rejigged roads, call on government to reverse plans to turn more hard shoulders into traffic lanes, arguing the practice is unsafe

Joe Sommerlad
Wednesday 03 November 2021 22:32 GMT
Demonstrators protesting against smart motorways march with coffins across Westminster Bridge to Parliament Square in London
Demonstrators protesting against smart motorways march with coffins across Westminster Bridge to Parliament Square in London (PA)

Smart motorways use technology to monitor the flow of traffic on their lanes in the hope of exerting greater control, keeping cars moving and easing congestion.

There are three distinct types: controlled, which have a permanent hard shoulder as normal but implement variable speed limits, conveyed to drivers via digital displays on overhead gantries; dynamic, which open their hard shoulder up to traffic as an additional 60mph lane at peak times; and all-lane running (ALR), which replace their hard shoulder with a permanent additional lane, providing only periodic emergency refuge areas in its place.

England has 375 miles of smart motorway in action at present, 235 of which are ALRs with no hard shoulder.

Controlled motorways began to be introduced in the 1990s, initially on the M25, and now all major routes around London consist of ether controlled or ALR roads.

Dynamic sections are primarily concentrated around the Midlands along the M6 and the M42, as well as on the M62 outside Leeds and Bradford, but this style is gradually being phased out.

Parts of the M1, M6, M3 and M4 have all been converted to either controlled or ALR, as have parts of the M62 and M42.

While motorways are statistically less dangerous than ordinary urban and rural roads, despite being navigated at faster speeds, the House of Commons Transport Select Committee delivered a report on Tuesday saying that it was “not convinced” by the merits of smart motorways and endorsed safety concerns raised by members of the public.

The MPs asked the Department of Transport to pause all plans to do away with hard shoulders for five years so that more data could be collected and also requested the suspension of all current schemes to convert dynamic routes into ALRs.

The ministers also called for more emergency refuge stops to be created, independent evaluations of the camera technology in use to spot breakdowns and changes to the Highway Code to order drivers to leave additional room to accommodate emergency services vehicles, requests the department has said it will consider.

Coinciding with the delivery of that report, a group of 50 protesters descended on London on Tuesday bearing 38 cardboard coffins, one for each person killed on a smart motorway between 2014 and 2019.

Led by widow Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason Mercer was killed in an accident on the M1 near Sheffield two years ago, the “Smart Motorways Kill” activists carried their caskets across Westminster Bridge to Parliament Square and then on to the Department of Transport’s headquarters on Horseferry Road.

“Will you listen when it’s a coach full of school kids?” read one placard.

“They keep doing review after review after review - in the meantime, people are still dying,” Ms Mercer said.

“We need to embarrass the government into actually doing something. We don’t need a raft of changes. We just need the hard shoulder back in every single instance.”

Nick Harris, the chief executive of National Highways, the body responsible for England’s motorways and major A roads, responded: “Safety remains our top priority and our motorways are the safest type of road in the country.

“We are determined to do all we can to help drivers feel safe and be safer on all our roads.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “Every death on our roads is a tragedy and our thoughts remain with anyone who has lost a loved one.

“We’ve tasked National Highways with implementing a raft of measures, including ensuring every new ALR motorway opens with technology to spot stopped vehicles.”

But another widow who was not convinced by the government’s pledge on cameras was Sally Jacobs, who appeared on ITV’s Good Morning Britain on Wednesday to say they would have made no difference in the accident that killed her later husband Derek Jacobs.

The late Mr Jacobs died when his tyre suffered a blowout and there was no hard shoulder for him to pull over onto, causing his stricken vehicle to be smashed into by a passing van.

“Of course what people don’t realise [is that] emergency services can’t get down to them quickly because the lane is blocked,” she said.

“In his case it was blocked for nine hours while they brought the emergency services in from the opposite direction.”

Asked by host Richard Madeley how long her husband had to act in the moments before he was killed, she answered: “It would have been seconds, that’s why the cameras are irrelevant, whether they are working or not, because you have seconds to get to safety with traffic thundering down behind you.”

Responding dismissively to the select committee’s conclusions, Ms Jacobs called for hard shoulders to be reinstated “straight away”, observing: “It will not cost a penny.”

Another guest on the programme, motoring journalist Ian Seabrook, sympathised with her story and described his own “absolutely terrifying” experience of suffering an electrical fault while driving on a smart motorway in an antiquated Jaguar sports car.

“You just feel so helpless when you’re trapped in a live running lane,” he said. “I’m told there are something like eight people monitoring over 400 cameras and you just think ‘how are they going to spot an incident?’”

Reporting in late September found that as many as one camera in 10 operating on smart motorways was faulty, further undermining confidence and prompting the Labour Party to accuse National Highways of “putting lives at risk needlessly”.

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