The Government’s rollout of new smart motorway schemes will be paused over safety concerns.
The Department for Transport said it will gather five years of safety data before creating further smart motorways, while investing £900 million to improve safety on existing All Lane Running (ALR) motorways.
Current stretches of smart motorway to be further upgraded with best-in-class technology and resources.
It comes after analysis showed less than 5% of England’s 500-mile smart motorway network has radar technology to detect drivers who break down in live lanes.
Claire Mercer, who lost her husband Jason on the M1 near Sheffield in June 2019, is one of several bereaved family members fighting to close down smart motorways.
Mrs Mercer’s husband and another man, Alexandru Murgeanu, died on the M1 close to the Meadowhall shopping centre, in Sheffield, when a lorry ploughed into them after they stopped in lane one following a minor collision.
Mrs Mercer, from Rotherham, previously said policymakers did not need any further analysis to conclude that smart motorways were deadly and said transport secretary Grant Shapps needed to order all lane one running to be halted, effectively recreating hard shoulders.
Changes to smart motorways as rollout paused
The latest changes from the Department of Transport are hoped to improve safety and confidence in smart motorways, with £390 million designated for additional emergency areas.
In line with the Transport Committee’s most recent recommendations, the rollout of new ALR smart motorways will be paused until a full five years’ worth of safety data becomes available for schemes introduced before 2020. After this point, the Government will reassess the data and decide on the next steps.
Though, in a press release, the Department claimed all available data shows smart motorways are comparatively the safest roads in the country in terms of fatality rates – promising new additions of the “best-in-class technology and resources” to make them safer.
Government changes to existing smart motorways include the creation of 150 additional Emergency Areas so drivers have more places to stop.
The Department for Transport welcomed the Transport Committee’s report, backing how it focused on further upgrading the safety of existing ALR smart motorways rather than reinstating the hard shoulder.
We want drivers to feel safe on All Lane Running smart motorways. That’s why we tasked @HighwaysEngland to deliver an Action Plan to raise the bar on safety.
— Department for Transport (@transportgovuk) April 20, 2021
The Committee report said evidence suggests hard shoulders do not always provide a safe place to stop, and by reducing motorway capacity, they could put more drivers and passengers at risk of death or serious injury if they were to divert onto less safe local roads.
Despite this, at the inquest for Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu, Sheffield coroner David Urpeth said “a lack of hard shoulder contributed to this tragedy” and that smart motorways “present an ongoing risk of future deaths”.
Speaking after her husband’s inquest, Mrs Mercer said: “It’s a simple as… if you had to stop on a motorway, would you rather it was in a live running lane or on a hard shoulder?”
‘Government improving smart motorway safety,’ Shapps says
Speaking on the announcement and smart motorway rollout pause, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “One of my first actions as Transport Secretary was to order a stocktake of smart motorways and since then, I have worked consistently to raise the bar on their safety. I am grateful to the Transport Committee and to all those who provided evidence for its work.
“While our initial data shows that smart motorways are among the safest roads in the UK, it’s crucial that we go further to ensure people feel safer using them.
“Pausing schemes yet to start construction and making multi-million-pound improvements to existing schemes will give drivers confidence and provide the data we need to inform our next steps. I want thank safety campaigners, including those who have lost loved ones, for rightly striving for higher standards on our roads. I share their concerns.”
Meanwhile National Highways CEO Nick Harris said: “While we pause those all lane running schemes yet to start construction we will complete the schemes currently in construction, we will make existing sections as safe as they can possibly be and we will step up our advice to drivers so they have all the information they need.
“We are doing this because safety is our absolute priority and we want drivers to not just be safer, but also to feel safe on our busiest roads.”
Independent road safety campaigner, Meera Naran, whose 8-year-old son Dev died in a motorway crash on the M6 in 2018, welcomed the safety analysis.
The campaigner said: “Conventional and smart motorways both have their risks and benefits. I welcome this pause in the rollout of smart motorways which will give us all a positive opportunity to assess the future of our motorway network.
“I’m encouraged by the commitment of £900 million to improve the safety of our motorways, following my campaigning since Dev died. However, I’ll continue to both challenge and work alongside the Department for Transport to ensure even more is done, including calling for legislation to be looked at for Autonomous Emergency Braking and further support for on-going driver education.”
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