Smart motorway construction paused after safety concerns

14 Jan, 2022

The government has temporarily stopped the rollout of ‘all-lane running’ smart motorway across the UK because of worries over how safe they are for drivers. A critical report was released in November 2021 by the Department for Transport (DfT), which said government plans to remove permanent hard shoulders from smart motorways in the future was ‘premature’.

The report also said that, although using the hard shoulders as live traffic lanes worked well to reduce the amount of traffic on the motorways, it has also contributed to the number of road deaths on smart motorways, with 38 people being killed between 2014-2019.

M1 smart motorway in Bedfordshire. Image from The Times
M1 smart motorway in Bedfordshire. Image from The Times

On 12th January 2022, the government responded to the DfT report and put a pause on plans to construct another 300 miles of smart motorways across the UK by 2025. Of the 400 miles already built and in use, 200 miles does not have a permanent hard shoulder, while 63 miles of smart motorways in the UK use the hard shoulder as a live lane ‘some of the time’.

The government has also said that 5 years’ worth of data will be collected on all the smart motorways built before 2020 so that they can figure out how to make them safer for motorists.

You can read the full report here.

What are smart motorways and how do they work?

Smart motorways use technology to manage traffic and reduce congestion caused by accidents or road works. They were first introduced in 2006, and have become more popular across the UK ever since.

The AA says the main differences between normal and smart motorways are that smart motorways are controlled by technology such as CCTV, radar and sensors which assess the traffic flow and makes decisions based on live-time data, with overhead gantries to direct motorists on the road. Smart motorways also use variable speed limits to control traffic, reducing speeds to 40, 50 or 60mph and displaying red ‘X’ signals on overhead signs to alert motorists.

There are three different types of smart motorways: controlled, dynamic and all-lane running.

  • Controlled: These have 3 or more lanes with permanent hard shoulders, and use variable speed limits to control the flow of traffic.

Example: the western section of the M25.

  • Dynamic: The hard shoulder can be opened at peak times and used as an extra lane to help with congestion, which reduces the speed limit to 60mph. Dynamic motorways also have variable speed limits to control traffic.

Examples: the M42 at J7-9, the M4 at J19-20, and the M5 at J15-17.

  • All-lane running: The hard shoulders of all-lane running motorways are permanently removed and all lanes are in use. There are only emergency refuge areas at stretches of every 1.6km or 2.5km. In the case of accidents or breakdowns, the overhead gantries will display a red ‘X’ to show motorists that they cannot use a particular lane.

Examples: the M25 at J23-27 and at J5-6/7.

What happens to smart motorways now?

The government’s decision to pause the construction of further all-lane running motorways hasn’t affected those smart motorways which have already started being built. At the moment, around 100 miles of all-lane running motorways are under construction; these will still be completed, and the motorways will still be in use.

Transport correspondent for BBC News Katy Austin said, ‘The point of smart motorways is to increase capacity and cut congestion, without the cost and disruption of building new roads or widening existing ones. This a significant moment in their journey. The rollout of “all-lane running” won’t go into reverse, but the brakes have been applied. Further safety and economic data will be gathered, and the effectiveness of planned improvements assessed, before any new projects get under way.’ 


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