As a leading specialist firm of solicitors dealing with very serious injury cases, we see first-hand the tragic consequences of accidents that occur on our roads and know, all too well, the perils facing road users. The safety of smart motorways has become a hot topic in the news recently leading to Highways England creating a tv advert featuring an adapted version of the Pet Shop Boys’ Go West and a couple of singing flies as part of a £5 million campaign designed to improve safety on smart motorways. Their advert urges motorists to “go left” to find a layby or verge in the event of a vehicle fault on a smart motorway. The advert, has been promoted as the “biggest ever” campaign by Highways England to promote safety on motorways.
Here we give a view on what smart motorways are and whether they are considered safe.
What is a smart motorway?
Smart motorways are sections of the motorway that use a traffic management system to provide variable speed limits as well as utilising the hard shoulder as an extra running lane. The reasoning behind this is to increase capacity and ease congestion. Highways England introduced smart motorways back in 2006 as an alternative to building additional lanes, stating that they created less disruption, were more environmentally friendly and minimised land take.
There are now three different types of smart motorway.
1. Dynamic hard shoulder
A dynamic hard shoulder was the first type of smart motorway to be introduced (2006). This involved opening the hard shoulder as a running lane during peak traffic hours to ease congestion.
On these stretches a solid white line differentiates the hard shoulder from the normal carriageway. Overhead signs on gantries indicate whether you can use the hard shoulder or not.
The hard shoulder must not be used if the signs over it are blank or display a red X, except in the case of an emergency. Other variable message signs will say ‘hard shoulder for emergency use only’.
A red X on the gantry above means you must exit the lane as soon as possible. Ignoring the ‘red X’ sign is extremely dangerous and illegal. Cameras are used to enforce the smart motorway rules, and anyone caught travelling in a red X lane will be automatically fined £100 and receive three points on their licence.
Overhead gantries on these types of motorway also display the mandatory speed limit which varies depending on the traffic conditions. Speed cameras are used to enforce these – no speed limit displayed indicates the national speed limit is in place.
2. All lane running
‘All lane running’ smart motorways (introduced in 2014) mean that the hard shoulder has been permanently removed and converted into a running lane. On these types of motorway, the former hard shoulder is only closed to traffic in the event of an incident. In this case, a closure of one or more lanes will be signalled by a red X on an overhead gantry and/or on a verge-mounted sign, meaning you must exit the lane(s) as soon as possible.
The same rules relating to speed and lane closure apply here as outlined in the ‘Dynamic hard shoulder’ section.
3. Controlled motorway
Controlled motorways have three or more lanes with variable speed limits but retain a traditional hard shoulder. The hard shoulder should only be used in a genuine emergency.
These variable speed limits are displayed on overhead gantry signs – if no speed limit is displayed the national speed limit is in place. Speed cameras are used to enforce these.
Are smart motorways dangerous?
Statistically speaking, smart motorways are less dangerous than regular motorways. The Department for Transport reported that:
“The total length of roads that have been converted to smart motorways more than quadrupled over 2010-2018. As conventional motorways are converted to smart motorways, there has been a decline in the total number of casualties recorded on the former and a rise in the number recorded on the latter”.
Highways England has also stated that since the introduction of smart motorways in 2006:
“Personal injury accidents have been reduced by more than half”.
However, it appears that the British public are still not convinced of the safety of the smart motorway.
Concerns have been raised by drivers around the variable speed limits. Stating that sudden changes have caused drivers to slam on their brakes to reduce their speed in time.
Highways England has clarified there is a slight lag between when the speed limit is changed and when the cameras will begin to enforce that speed limit, to accommodate drivers reducing their speed at a sensible rate. A specific time period is not given for every camera, however, and it can be as quick as 10 seconds, so it is crucial drivers remain alert and respond to variable speed limits swiftly and safely.
Further concerns have also been raised around the lack of a safe space to stop in an emergency.
Pressure to address this issue has been heightened over recent years, after two men died in 2019 when a lorry driver ploughed into their vehicles while they were stationary on the M1 in South Yorkshire.
In January 2021 Sheffield Coroner David Urpeth who worked on this case said that smart motorways presented “an ongoing risk of future deaths” (BBC) and that the tragedy on the M1 would not have occurred had there been a hard shoulder (The Guardian).
What are the government doing?
The Transport Committee has begun looking into improving safety measures on all UK motorways with the government offering their full support stating that this is an “important enquiry”.
Calls to scrap smart motorways are being dismissed by the government who state that they are essential in tackling the rise in traffic across the nation. They have been effective at helping to ease the 23% rise in traffic congestion seen since 2000.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has published an 18-point action plan to improve motorway safety, including extending stopped vehicle-detection systems to all stretches of smart motorways.
To back this up, Shapps has committed £500m to improving smart motorway safety standards.
In October 2019, Highways England revealed that by 2025 an additional 300 miles of smart motorway without hard shoulders will be rolled out across England and that dynamic hard shoulders will be phased out. The government hope that phasing out dynamic hard shoulders will reduce the level of confusion currently held by the public around the rules of smart motorways.
To address concerns about the lack of a safe space to stop, the government has also agreed to build more emergency refuge areas. These will be built to allow cars to pull over safely at shorter intervals, reducing the maximum distance to one mile between refuges.
Funding for a public education campaign has also been allocated, along with updates to the Highway Code, to help ensure drivers know the rules when driving on smart motorways.
We wish all road users safe travels. However, if you or any of your family or friends are involved in an accident on the roads, including on a smart motorway, and require legal assistance, please do not hesitate to contact us. We can also be contacted on 03300580377 for a free, confidential, conversation with an experienced serious injury solicitor. Alternatively, please send us your contact details to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll call you back or feel free to join the discussion.
Reference material: Much of the information provided here was taken from an article run by the RAC on Smart Motorways along with articles by the BBC and Guardian as shown above.