In Depth

What are smart motorways and how safe are they?

Urgent review of UK’s automated road systems following 38 deaths

A total of 38 people have been killed on smart motorways in the last five years, newly published government figures show.

Highways England, which manages the country’s road infrastructure, has released the death tally for the first time following a freedom of information request from the BBC’s Panorama programme.

Critics have long argued that smart motorways are unsafe because they do not have a hard shoulder where drivers who break down can safely stop and exit their vehicle, rather than being marooned amid speeding traffic.

A government review due to be concluded soon is expected to recommend reforms to improve safety on the hi-tech roads. Speaking to the BBC current affairs show, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: "We absolutely have to have these as safe or safer than regular motorways or we shouldn’t have them at all.”

What are smart motorways?

First trialled in the West Midlands in 2006, smart motorways use a series of scanners and cameras to respond in real-time to keep traffic moving when there is congestion, roadworks, traffic jams and accidents. However, the term “smart motorway” wasn’t coined until 2013.

There are three types of smart motorway, which the AA lists as motorways:

  • Controlled motorway - multiple lanes, variable speed limits and a hard shoulder for “emergencies only”.
  • Hard shoulder running - variable speed limits and a hard shoulder that can be turned into a fourth lane when needed. Drivers are told via electric overhead signs to use the hard shoulder during peak hours. 
  • All lanes running - variable speed limits and a permanent fourth lane instead of a hard shoulder. Emergency refuge areas can be found every 1.55 miles (2.5km).
Where are they?

England’s smart motorways cover a total of more than 236 miles. According to Alphr, the smart motorway sections can be found on the following highways:

  • M1 (Watford, London, to Leeds, West Yorkshire - J16 to 19, J23a to 25, J28 to 31, J32 to 35a, J39 to 42)
  • M3 (Sunbury-on-Thames, Surrey, to Southampton, Hampshire - J2 to 4a)
  • M4 (Chiswick, London, to Swansea, South Wales - J19 to 20)
  • M5 (West Bromwich, West Midlands, to Exeter, Devon - J4a to 6, J15 to 17)
  • M6 (Between Rugby and Coventry, Warwickshire and West Midlands, to Gretna, Scotland - J10a to 13, J16 to 19)
  • M20 (Swanley, Kent, to Folkestone, Kent - J3 to 5)
  • M25 (London ring road - J5 to 7, J23 to 27)
  • M40 (Denham, Buckinghamshire, to Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire - J16 to M42 J3a)
  • M42 (Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, to Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire - J7 to 9)
  • M62 (Liverpool, Merseyside, to North Cave, East Yorkshire - J25 to 26)
  • M90 (Edinburgh, Scotland, to Dunblane, Scotland - J1a to 2 and J2 to 3)
Are smart motorways safe?

The newly released government figures show that on one section of the M25, outside London, the number of near misses had risen 20-fold since the hard shoulder was removed in April 2014.

In the five years before the road was converted into a smart motorway, just 72 near misses were recorded. In the five years following the conversion, 1,485 were recorded.

A “near miss” is recorded when there is a road incident with “the potential to cause injury or ill health”.

The findings of the ongoing government review, due to be announced shortly, are expected to include a recommendation that the entire network be fitted with radar car detection systems that can spot stranded cars as soon as they break down. At present, motorists wait for an average of 17 minutes before being spotted, and for a further 17 to be rescued.

Conservative MP Mike Penning told the BBC that smart motorways are “endangering people’s lives”. 

Penning agreed to the rollout of smart motorways in 2010 after a successful pilot on the M42 near Birmingham, but claims he was misled about the risks of taking away the hard shoulder, the i news site reports.

“There are people that are being killed and seriously injured on these roads, and it should never have happened,” he said.

An all-party group of MPs led by Penning will publish a report on Tuesday that accuses Highways England of “a shocking degree of carelessness”.

The ministers say there should be no new smart motorways until research into their safety by Highways England has been concluded and the results of the separate government review have been announced.

Meanwhile, a survey of AA members has found that only 9% of drivers feel “completely safe or relaxed” on smart motorways, compared with 45% on traditional carriageways with hard shoulders, The Times reports.

Backing calls for the nationwide introduction of radar car detection systems, AA president Edmund King, said:  “The real scandal is the avoidable deaths – people who have broken down in a live lane and been unable to move until a vehicle has ploughed into the back of them.” 

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