Since launching, millions of journeys have been made by ordinary motorists, courier drivers, HGVs, and members of the motor trade on ‘smart motorways’, which have been publicly criticised for being less safe than conventional motorways.
But Grant Shapps, the UK Transport Secretary, has ruled out scrapping them after admitting their name was a ‘misnomer’, saying he ‘wouldn’t have gone about it like this’ if he was in charge when they launched.
All-lane running (ALR) smart motorways are created by removing the hard shoulder to increase lane capacity. Gantry signs overhead warn motorists of accidents in lanes up ahead and emergency refuge areas are provided for vehicles to pull off the road.
Following a safety drive, Mr Shapps insisted these roads were now much safer and death rates on conventional motorways were higher, saying: “Why these things were ever called smart motorways when they seemed to be anything but, I think was a misnomer.”
After being quizzed about the controversial roads by the transport committee, he told MPs reversing them now would mean destroying swathes of Green Belt, buying up people’s homes, and acquiring land the equivalent of 700 Wembley stadium-sized football pitches.
During the recent announcement for ‘Stopped Vehicle Detection’ (SVD), a new technology that detects marooned cars within 20 seconds using radar units monitoring traffic in both directions, which is now being rolled out to the entire network by the end of 2022, brought forward from 2023.
Mr Shapps explained his frustrations with the smart motorway scheme, he said, “I don’t want to carry on with what we’ve seen of smart motorways, and I do not approve of the fact that emergency areas were being spaced way too far apart. I’ve said they have to be ideally three-quarters of a mile apart, no more than a mile, and I’ve ordered Highways England to get on with it.”
Motor trade industry groups agree that hundreds of miles of existing smart motorway should have emergency areas more closely spaced, nine projects with refuge areas between 1.04 and 1.39 miles apart were confirmed in November 2019.
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Nicholas Lyes from the RAC said: “While we’re very supportive of stopped vehicle detection technology, the success of it still depends on other drivers seeing and obeying red ‘x’ closed-lane signs. If drivers don’t see these because gantries or verge-mounted signs are too far apart, then there’s still a risk of collision with a stationary vehicle. We’d also like to see Highways England commit to a national programme of installing more SOS areas on the existing network, so all refuge areas are consistent distances apart. In addition, we’d like to know if the promise of additional traffic officer patrols has been fulfilled as this will be a crucial ingredient in providing extra protection for drivers that are unfortunate enough to be stranded in a dangerous live-lane scenario.”
President of the AA, Edmund King said, ‘To give the Transport Secretary some credit, he is the only minister to date who has taken the safety of ‘smart’ motorways seriously and has pushed Highways England to make them safer. In the meantime, we hope he wastes no time in making these motorways the safest they can possibly be, by retrofitting more emergency laybys.’
Around 44 people have died on smart motorways over the last five years or so. Other plans for making motorways without a hard shoulder safer, include fines for drivers who ignore lane-closure signs, which could also affect their insurance policy premium if convicted.