Smart motorway construction paused amid safety concerns


The rollout of ‘all-lane running’ smart motorway systems has been paused after safety concerns over the use of hard shoulders as live lanes. A critical report released in November 2021 by the Department for Transport (DfT), states that government plans to remove permanent hard shoulders from smart motorways in the future is ‘premature’.

According to the report, although the use of the hard shoulders as live traffic lanes has decreased the amount of traffic on the motorways, it has also contributed to the number of road deaths, with 38 people being killed on smart motorways between 2014-2019.

On 12th January 2022, the government responded to the DfT report and issued a temporary halt 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 announced that data will be also collected across a 5-year period on smart motorways built before 2020, to assess the necessary safety measures which need to be put in place.

You can read the full report here.

What are smart motorways and how do they work?

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

According to the AA, the main differences between normal and smart motorways are that the latter are controlled by technology such as CCTV, radar and sensors which assess the traffic flow and makes decisions accordingly, 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 alleviate 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 has not affected those smart motorways which are currently 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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