Government measures to address smart motorway safety concerns

Whilst smart motorways have greatly assisted in meeting a significant increase in motorway traffic, particular concern has arisen over the number of serious and fatal collisions. Motoring organisations (assisted by the breakdown and recovery industry as a whole) have been involved in campaigns to improve safety on smart motorways for much of the past ten years. In October 2019 the Department for Transport launched a review of smart motorways, publishing its findings and recommendations in its report - ‘Smart Motorway Safety Evidence Stocktake and Action Plan’ (the Report) - on 12 March 2020.

In this article we consider some of the concerns raised prior to that review and some of the proposals to address those.

Safety concerns

To understand these concerns it is necessary to recognise that not all smart motorways are the same. There are effectively three types of ‘managed’ motorway that are known as smart motorways, described in government guidance as follows:

  • Dynamic hard shoulder – where the hard shoulder is temporarily opened up to traffic.
  • All lane running - where the full width of the road is usable with emergency refuge areas alongside.
  • Controlled motorway - with three or more lanes, a hard shoulder and variable speed limits.

Particular concerns arose with dynamic hard shoulder motorways and lane closures not being policed. Although an offence to use the hard shoulder when closed, those running the safety campaign argued a lack of detection and lack of enforcement meant offenders flouting lane closures was a serious issue. Breakdown in live lanes especially on all lane running motorways was raised as a significant safety concern. Related issues over slow detection and incomplete technology for detection of stranded vehicles were also raised. These issues were compounded by a lack of Highways Officers to attend incidents.

Concerns have also been raised about the length of emergency refuge areas (ERAs) on some smart motorways.

Government review

Amongst the conclusions within the Report, it states that:

Overall, the evidence shows that in most ways, smart motorways are as safe as, or safer than, conventional motorways, but not in every way.

To that end the Secretary of State for Transport recognises that “more work is needed to ensure that smart motorways are as safe as they can be” and alongside the report has launched an “extended package of measures – an Action Plan – to raise the bar on smart motorway safety”. The key measures include:

  • Abolishing dynamic hard shoulder smart motorways.
  • Speeding up the deployment of “stopped vehicle detection” technology across the entire all lane running smart motorway network. Highways England is to accelerate its plans and install the technology within the next 36 months, setting a clear public timetable for the first time.
  • Faster attendance by more Highways England traffic officer patrols on smart motorways where the ERAs are more than one mile apart.
  • Reducing the distance between ERAs to three quarters of a mile where feasible on future schemes and the introduction of a new maximum distance of one mile between ERAs on new smart motorways.
  • Installing additional ERAs on the M25 smart motorway and considering a national programme to install more ERAs where places to stop in an emergency are more than one mile apart.
  • Making emergency areas more visible by the end of spring 2020 and installing traffic signs signalling the distance to the next ERA.
  • Review existing ERAs less than 15 feet wide to establish if they can be widened.
  • Additional £5 million on national communications campaigns to further increase awareness and understanding of smart motorways, to include an update of the Highway Code.
  • Expanding automatic ‘report of obstruction’ messages triggered by the stopped vehicle detection system, to warn drivers of a stopped vehicle ahead.
  • Closer working with the recovery industry on training and procedures.

Underpinning the recommendations is the commitment to “monitor existing smart motorways and new ones after they become operational to review safety data and evaluate whether they are meeting the safety objective of being as safe as, or safer than, the conventional motorways they replaced.”

Further details of the implementation of the measures set out in the Action Plan are awaited.

Comment

Measures to address concerns over the physical safety of smart motorways are particularly important and are welcome. Arguably of equal importance is the commitment to raise public awareness and understanding of smart motorways.

Motorway collisions involve a disproportionately high number of Heavy Goods Vehicles and other goods vehicles. In cases of serious injury or fatality arising from such collisions on smart motorways, there is considerable scope for drivers to be prosecuted, even in circumstances where the operation of the smart motorway may have contributed significantly. Additional training of drivers to reduce the risks associated with smart motorways must also be an important consideration.

Read others items in Motor Brief - June 2020