There has been serious concern expressed about the levels of safety for motorists using smart motorways.
The Government is to announce a series of updates to the UK's smart motorway network, following the unearthing of accident statistics that show 38 people have lost their lives on the roads in five years. Data obtained from Highways England also shows there was a 20-fold increase in the number of "near miss" incidents after a section of motorway was converted to "smart" running.
The figures, uncovered by the BBC's Panorama programme, found that in the five years prior to its conversion to smart motorway, one section of the M25 saw just 72 "near miss" incidents. In the five years after the road was converted into a smart motorway there were 1,485 near miss incidents - defined as situations with "the potential to cause injury or ill health."
The figures, obtained following freedom of information requests, also reveal there have been 38 deaths over five years on smart motorways - which comprise just 200 miles or so of the UK's 2,300-mile motorway network.
Following the investigation, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the BBC: "We absolutely have to have these as safe or safer than regular motorways or we shouldn't have them at all."
Government smart motorway review
The BBC claims a Government review, launched towards the end of last year and due to be published soon, is to make a number of recommendations. The first is to end "dynamic" smart motorways, which see the hard shoulder opened and closed depending on traffic volume.
The second recommendation is the building of more emergency refuge laybys on all-lane running motorways - roads with no hard shoulder at all.
The third recommendation, according to the BBC, will be that radar-based stopped vehicle detection (SVD) systems are installed across the entire smart motorway network within the next three years.
Edmund King, president of the AA and a long-time campaigner for better smart motorway safety, said: "There is much confusion and fear out there. If the Government is not going back to the drawing board to reinstate the hard shoulder, then the least they can do is to double the number of emergency refuge areas to every three-quarters of a mile. The current system is not fit for purpose and too many tragic and avoidable deaths are occurring."
King highlighted that when smart motorways were trialled on the M42 in 2010, there were emergency refuge areas (ERAs) every 500 metres - while on some sections of the current network over two miles separate ERAs.
“It is no consolation to the grieving families when the Government repeats that these smart motorways are as safe as conventional motorways, when we know better design would result in fewer deaths. Too many corners have been cut in the interest of cost saving to move the goal posts from ERAs every 500m in the successful M42 pilot to every 2500m without consultation."
The RAC's head of roads policy, Nicholas Lyes, echoed King's concern, though warned there may be stopped vehicle detection systems: “A commitment to install stopped vehicle detection technology on the whole smart motorway network would be a welcome step... However, three years to install this across the network is a long time to wait and questions must be asked as to why this hasn’t already been rolled out universally to date."
Smart motorways: breakdown recovery firms won’t stop for vehicles in closed ‘red X’ lanes
Recovery firms are not allowed to stop and help motorists whose vehicles have broken down on smart motorway lanes that have been closed with ‘red X’ signs. Instead, staff from firms like the AA, Green Flag and RAC must wait for police or Highways England vehicles to physically close the lane or tow the vehicle to a refuge area, according to official guidance.
The ‘best practice guidelines’ from the Survive Group - formed of senior police officers, Highways England and all major recovery firms - says breakdown operatives should “Never work in a live lane of a motorway lane unless the lane has been closed by a Police vehicle, HE [Highways England] Traffic Officer vehicle or Impact Protection Vehicle...Do not rely on a red X closure sign.”
The recommendations mean the organisations involved in drafting the guidelines consider closed lanes on all-lane-running smart motorways too dangerous a place for breakdown operatives to work, even when red X signs on overhead gantries have informed motorists they must use other lanes.
While it is illegal to drive in closed ‘red X’ lanes, 180,000 drivers received warning letters in the 18 months between 2017 and summer 2018 for the offence - which is now enforced by cameras and results in three penalty points and a £100 fine.
The revelation that breakdown firms are not allowed to stop in ‘red X’ lanes is the latest in a slew of controversies related to smart motorways. In September last year accident data revealed the number of fatal motorway collisions increased by a fifth in 2018 compared to 2017.
A damning report written for Highways England and unearthed by the AA, meanwhile, found breaking down in the live lane of a smart motorway during off-peak hours is 216 per cent more dangerous than doing so on a conventional motorway.
Proponents of smart motorways - which are a cost-effective way of increasing traffic capacity compared to expanding or building new roads - highlight that motorways remain the safest type of road in the country, and also cite evidence that smart motorways are safer than conventional motorways in other respects.
That hasn’t stopped Transport Secretary Grant Shapps ordering an investigation into the roads, however, having told MPs: “we know people are dying on smart motorways”.
Edmund King, president of the AA, which has long campaigned against smart motorways, said: “Being stuck in a live lane is incredibly dangerous. The official advice is keep your seat belt and hazard lights on and dial 999.
“It is not safe for breakdown organisations to recover vehicles unless the lane is closed and has a physical presence sat behind the casualty vehicle. This is either the Police with blue flashing lights or Highways England Traffic Officers with red flashing lights.
“This highlights the severity of breaking down in a live lane and further emphasises our calls for double the number of Emergency Refuge Areas. Providing drivers with more places of relative safety would reduce the risk of vehicles being stuck in a lane of fast-moving traffic.”
A spokesperson for Highways England said: "The Transport Secretary has asked the Department for Transport to carry out, at pace, an evidence stocktake to gather the facts about smart motorway safety. We are committed to safety and are supporting the Department in its work on this.”
Smart motorways need to be as safe as possible, or realistically we shouldn’t have them at all.