Un-SMART Motorways

Serious safety concerns have been raised about the roll out of All Lane Running (ALR) and Smart Motorways where the hard shoulder is sacrificed to become a permanent live lane. There were 10 fatalities in 2019 including five fatalities in just 10 months on a 16-mile section of the M1 near Sheffield. The AA are refusing to rescue trapped motorists on Smart Motorways as they consider it too unsafe for their breakdown crews. The Transport Secretary Grant Schapps placed Smart Motorways under review in October 2019, soon after taking office, and the results of the review are due any moment.

Opposition to All Lane Running has united both environmental and motoring groups, but the most impassioned voices come from the relatives who have lost their loved ones. They’ve formed Smart Motorways Kill and are crowdfunding to legally challenge the roll out of Smart Motorways. The main criticisms are that fatal crashes are inevitable as the technology to detect stopped vehicles is failing and the emergency refuges are spread too far apart. With traffic travelling at 70mph, and nowhere for motorists to retreat, it is inevitable that collisions have devastating consequences.

It seems inconceivable that these killer motorways have been rolled out when the dangers are so obvious, the technology is failing and the death toll is rising. How did this happen? It’s a classic case of ‘mission creep’ – where something drifts so far from its original aims as to be unrecognisable.

To understand how we got to this bizarre place, we have to go back to 2006, when the Department for Transport first trialled hard shoulder running on the M42. During the trial the hard shoulder was only used at times of peak congestion, and the traffic was kept at a steady 50mph speed limit. The results were astonishing. The lower speed kept traffic flow smooth and reliable, reduced carbon emissions by 10% and cut crashes. The uniform 50mph speed limit led to less lane-switching and there were frequent refuges in place if anyone broke down. These good results converted many, including the motorists who used the M42 and even some sceptical environmentalists who were seduced by the carbon savings. Ministers even suggested using the extra lane for car-sharing or road-charging, although this never materialised.

However, by 2008 it was apparent that the wheels were starting to come off the original plan as the benefits used to justify the original scheme started to be jettisoned. Firstly, the 50mph speed limit was raised to 60mph in 2008 which immediately wiped out all the CO2 savings, as higher speeds produce higher emissions. Of course, higher speeds mean longer stopping distances and more crashes, so the safety benefits also evaporated. Since then the speed limit has crept up again and today all lanes have the standard motorway limit of 70mph. Secondly the refuges, which were originally 400m apart, gradually became more spread out as safety was sacrificed to cost-cutting. By 2008 the gap had increased to 800m, and today motorists have to limp 2.5 km to find a refuge if their engine fails. Many do not make it, with often devastating consequences.

By 2016, with all the original safety features stripped back, criticism of ALR was deafening with motoring groups leading the condemnation, joined by environmental groups and Parliament’s transport select committee adding to the chorus. Although Highways England has promised to roll out the Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) radar technology which has been used on the M25, a letter from Highways England to the inquest of 8-year old Dev Naran revealed that the M25 trials of SVD have not gone well. Apparently, the technology creates an “unmanageable amount of false alarms” when traffic builds up to moderate to heavy levels, as so many vehicles are stopping and starting. Drivers are waiting an average of 17 minutes before being detected, in live lanes with vehicles thundering past at 70mph. This is simply unacceptable.

So we are left with a scheme that bears no resemblance to the original trial, with all of the drawbacks and none of the benefits. Both fatalities and CO2 emissions are rising. It is a safety and environmental nightmare. In a Parliamentary debate this week MPs called for more refuges and more SVD radar technology to prevent more deaths. However, if the technology is not working to keep people safe, whilst emissions continue to rise, we argue that the whole experiment should be terminated. This has been a costly mistake, and the risks to motorists and breakdown crews are simply unacceptable. It is time to look seriously once again at slowing traffic down, as at the M42 trial in 2006, but also at reducing traffic levels, not simply following the discredited ‘predict and provide’ model of adding more lanes.

Photo: Department for Transport


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