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Rishi Sunak has cancelled smart motorways. So what will it mean for drivers?

Ever since smart motorways were introduced in the UK in 2006, they have proved highly controversial. The concept was brought in to create much-needed capacity on key parts of a congested road network.

But the removal of the normal hard shoulder – the lane on the nearside of most motorways that is normally restricted to emergency use – has been blamed for causing the deaths of motorists who run into difficulties.

Rishi Sunak’s government now says plans for new smart motorways will be cancelled “in recognition of the current lack of public confidence felt by drivers and cost pressures”.

Eleven schemes that are currently “paused” – as well as future smart motorways earmarked for construction between 2025 and 2030 – will now not go ahead.

The previous prime minister, Liz Truss, had vowed to scrap all smart motorways. This will not happen; existing smart motorways will continue to operate, with safety improvements.

But what will the decision mean for motorists – and road safety?

Who introduced smart motorways?

Smart motorways were introduced in 2006 under the Blair government, with the first opened on the M42 in the Midlands.

The Labour peer Lord Jordan – who is life president of the accident prevention charity, RoSPA – told Parliament in a debate in 2020: “When the first smart motorway experiment opened on the M42 in 2006, it showed great potential for improving the situation caused by the growing congestion on Britain’s motorways.

“Using technology, new techniques were developed to better manage the increasing volumes of traffic. Warning systems eased and even averted traffic jams, alerted motorists to congestion points and proved invaluable in emergency situations.”

After the trial, millions of pounds was put into expanding the scheme onto roads such as the M1, M4, M5, M6, M60 and M62.

What is a smart motorway?

A stretch of especially busy motorway where traffic management methods are used to increase capacity and reduce congestion.

There are three types:

  • Variable speed limits – motorways where the default is the national speed limit of 70mph but can be reduced with specific lower limits on overhead signs. The aim is to ease congestion and increase safety by moderating speed.
  • Dynamic hard shoulder running – at busy times the hard shoulder opens to traffic, adding extra capacity. Overhead signs indicate whether the lane is in use.
  • All lane running – the hard shoulder is permanently used as an additional lane, with emergency refuges installed intermittently to allow motorists with mechanical or other issues to gain protection from the traffic. Since the scheme began in 2014, 141 miles of all-lane-running motorways have been created. If there is a breakdown, when “stopped vehicle technology” is in place, it takes National Highways an average of one minute to close the lane.

Which stretches of motorway are smart?

The M25 is entirely smart. Some of the motorways it crosses, including the M23, M3 and M4, are smart for stretches close to London. The M1 is smart for most of its length between London and Leeds.

Parts of the M62, near Leeds, Bradford and Manchester, are smart. The M6 through Cheshire, Staffordshire and the West Midlands is smart, as are spurs (short stretches of motorway) near Birmingham on the M42 and M5.

Smart moves: National Highways map from 2021 showing existing smart motorways (dark blue) and proposed stretches (red)

(National Highways)

What are the concerns?

Campaigners say that 75 lives have been lost on smart motorways, and several coroners have requested a review of the policy. The Transport Select Committee, which has studied smart motorways in depth, has expressed serious worries about the risks they pose.

Dynamic hard shoulder motorways, meanwhile, “apparently confuse drivers, because the hard shoulder is used unpredictably to tackle congestion,” says the all-party committee of MPs.

“A more consistent approach, where the hard shoulder is used at known times, could clarify the situation for drivers without physically removing the hard shoulder.”

On all lane running, the MPs’ concern is that it deprives motorists in difficulty of an immediate escape from the traffic – with insufficient emergency refuges.

“Deaths on motorways without a permanent hard shoulder have increased from five in 2017 to 15 in 2019,” the committee says.

“Other forms of smart motorways, where the hard shoulder is converted to a live lane at peak times of congestion, have lower casualty rates than removing the hard shoulder altogether.”

Its recent report says: “National Highways should therefore pause the rollout of all-lane running motorways to collect more data, to upgrade and then evaluate the safety of existing all-lane running schemes and to consider alternative options for enhancing capacity on the Strategic Road Network.”

Edmund King, president of the AA, describes the concept as “motorway widening on the cheap”. He told the Telegraph: “At least 40 people have paid the ultimate price. This is the scandal of smart motorways.”

What have ministers decided?

Mr Sunak said: “All drivers deserve to have confidence in the roads they use to get around the country.

“Many people across the country rely on driving to get to work, to take their children to school and go about their daily lives and I want them to be able to do so with full confidence that the roads they drive on are safe.”

Transport secretary Mark Harper said: “We want the public to know that this government is listening to their concerns.

“Today’s announcement means no new smart motorways will be built, recognising the lack of public confidence felt by drivers and the cost pressures due to inflation.”

The government and National Highways had already earmarked £900 million for “further safety improvements on existing smart motorways”.

This involves installing 150 extra emergency areas across the network, and “improving the performance of stopped vehicle detection technology on every all lane running smart motorway”.

What will the effect be?

Compared with the situation had the planned new smart motorways gone ahead, congestion is likely to increase and roads could become more dangerous.

Some motorists may switch to less safe A-roads, raising the risks ot themselves and other road users.

The report by MPs on the Transport Select Committee concluded: “We are not convinced that reinstating the hard shoulder on all all-lane running motorways will improve safety.

“The evidence suggests that doing so could put more drivers and passengers at risk of death and serious injury.”

Are there other ways to increase road safety?

Yes. Were the driving age to be raised from 17 to 25, and motorcycles banned, the number of fatalities would fall sharply.

Calls have been made for drivers aged 85 or more to take a second test because of safety concerns.

Financial moves could help – such as doubling the price of fuel or halving the cost of rail tickets.

But such moves would be politically impossible. Longer term, autonomous vehicles present the best hope of reducing the number of tragedies on the roads.

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