"Smart motorways keep the country moving...They reduce the disruption and destruction which would otherwise be needed to widen our busiest roads. But they must be safe."1
As the Department for Transport publishes its much-anticipated stocktake of smart motorways, including an action plan on how to improve their safety, we consider whether the recommendations address the key criticisms of these controversial roads.
The report states:
"Overall, the evidence shows that in most ways, smart motorways are as safe as, or safer than, conventional motorways, but not in every way."
Risks such as tailgating, rapid changes of speeds, vehicles drifting off the carriageway and vehicles being driven too fast were all said to be lower on smart motorways. However, some risks were found to be higher than on conventional motorways, including that of a crash between a moving and stationary vehicle.
The report outlines a number of recommendations designed to address these issues and improve public confidence, including:
- Abolishing the confusing "dynamic hard shoulder" smart motorways, where the hard shoulder operates only part-time and is a live running lane the rest of the time.
- Substantially speeding up the deployment of "stopped vehicle detection" technology across the entire "all lane running" smart motorway network, so stopped vehicles can be detected and the lanes closed more quickly. Highways England is to accelerate its plans and install the technology within the next 36 months, setting a clear public timetable for the first time.
- Reducing the distance between places to stop in an emergency to three quarters of a mile where feasible so that on future schemes motorists should typically reach one every 45 seconds at 60mph. The maximum spacing will be one mile.
- Making emergency areas more visible – all emergency areas will have a bright orange road surface, dotted lines on the surfacing showing where to stop, better and more frequent signs on approach and signs inside giving information on what to do in an emergency. These will be installed by the end of spring 2020 alongside more traffic signs giving the distance to the next place to stop in an emergency.
- £5m on national targeted communications campaigns to further increase awareness and understanding of smart motorways, how they work and how to use them confidently.
- Displaying "report of obstruction" messages automatically on electronic signs, triggered by the stopped vehicle detection system, to warn drivers of a stopped vehicle ahead; this is currently being trialled on the M25 and then a further trial will take place on the M3.
- Enabling automatic detection of "red X" violations and enforcement using cameras and expanding the upgrade of smart motorway cameras (HADECS) to identify more of those who currently ignore the "red X". The penalty is 3 points on the driver's licence and a £100 fine, or the driver can be referred to an awareness course.
Mixed stakeholder response
The responses to the action plan have been mixed, with some campaigners saying that the recommendations simply do not go far enough.
Previous criticisms surrounding smart motorways had primarily arisen following a number of fatalities involving stranded vehicles and vehicles proceeding down closed lanes. These criticisms focused on those with a "dynamic hard shoulder" and those with "all lane running", with members of the public being unsure about using the hard shoulder.
The above action plan does address the confusion for motorists, by converting the hard shoulder permanently into a traffic lane on dynamic smart motorways, effectively ending their use.
AA president Edmund King said: "For the last decade we have been campaigning to improve the design and safety of 'smart' motorways. The measures announced by the transport secretary today are a victory for common sense and safety."
Yet, RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: "Two-thirds of drivers tell us that they believe permanently removing the hard shoulder compromises safety in the event of a breakdown. While it is welcome that the Government has listened to their concerns and undertaken this review, it remains to be seen whether these measures go far enough to protect drivers who are unfortunate enough to break down in live lanes."2
We previously reported that Highways England was potentially facing judicial review of the decision to introduce such roads3 and indeed calls for further legal action have been renewed.
Following the deaths of two motorists hit by a lorry in a live lane, the sentencing judge commented that the deaths could have been prevented if there had been a hard shoulder. Not only were the two motorists unable to reach an emergency refuge, overhead gantry signs run by Highways England did not close the lane or warn of a broken down vehicle.
His Honour Judge Gratwicke said: "I accept that if there had been a hard shoulder or a refuge into which Mr Üstün could have steered, that collision would not have occurred. However, it is not for this court to make any judgments or observations on the wisdom of smart motorways or the strength of safety barriers."4
The end of the road?
Whilst the Government review is certainly to be welcomed, only time will tell whether the recommended measures are sufficient to address the safety concerns and fatalities occurring on these roads.
"Safety must always be the priority when it comes to our roads....We will continue to press the Government to ensure that the safety of smart motorways remains under constant review and that all steps are taken to reduce risk and provide confidence and assurance to the public."5
Authors: Kate Hargan, Senior Associate, and Luisa Lister, Professional Support Lawyer
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1. Quote from Grant Shapps MP, Secretary of State for Transport- https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/873000/smart-motorway-safety-evidence-stocktake-and-action-plan.pdf
4. The Sunday Telegraph- Smart motorways' 'callous disregard for human life' brings demand for prosecution
5. Joshua Harris, director of campaigns for road safety charity Brake- http://www.brake.org.uk/media-centre/1991-brake-comments-as-government-reveals-plan-to-improve-safety-of-smart-motorways
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