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Smart motorways: new safety measures and collision statistics revealed

3-minute read

Conor Shilling

25 May 2022

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National Highways is due to complete a range of safety upgrades to smart motorways by the end of September 2022.

Read on to find out what’s being updated, how you could be affected if you drive for work, and the latest official smart motorway collision statistics.

Smart motorway safety updates – what do you need to know?

As part of the Smart Motorway Stocktake – Second Year Progress Report, National Highways has announced that it’s on course to complete a range of safety updates to smart motorways without a hard shoulder.

The updates include:

  • upgrading almost 100 safety cameras to enable automatic detection of vehicles that ignore red X lane closure signals
  • an extra 330 smart motorway signs installed to inform drivers of the distance to the next place to stop if they experience a mechanical problem or emergency
  • the roll-out of radar-based technology that can spot a stopped or broken-down vehicle on over 200 miles of all-lane-running (ALR) motorway

What is a smart motorway?

Smart motorways were introduced in 2002, with the aim of using technology to ease congestion.

Lanes on smart motorways are monitored by automated cameras and can open and close at any time.

If the lane is closed, signs above the smart motorway show a red X. These signs are also used to show speed limits.

On a smart motorway, the hard shoulder can be used as a lane. It’s estimated that there are 375 miles of smart motorway in England, which includes 235 miles without a hard shoulder.

There are three types of smart motorway:

  • Controlled – these roads have a permanent hard shoulder, with traffic controlled through speed limits
  • ALR – this type of smart motorway has no hard shoulder
  • Dynamic Hard Shoulder – the hard shoulder is opened for use when the road is busy

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Why has the rollout of smart motorways been delayed?

In 2021, after calls from MPs to stop the rollout of smart motorways due to safety issues, the government launched an inquiry.

As a result, in January 2022, the rollout of new ALR smart motorways was paused while five years of safety and economic data could be gathered.

The government also committed to spending £390 million on new emergency areas for road users.

The Department for Transport says smart motorways create more space on the busiest roads, helping people to get to where they need to be as “quickly and reliably as possible”.

It says that in terms of serious or fatal casualties, smart motorways are the safest roads on the road network.

However, smart motorways are controversial due to drivers’ concerns about breaking down in a live lane, which has led to some fatal accidents.

Confidence among road users is therefore low, with research acknowledged by National Highways suggesting that drivers feel more confident using dual carriageways and major A-roads than smart motorways.

Harry Green/stock.adobe.com

Can business drivers be reassured that smart motorways are safe?

People who drive for work may be worried about using busy roads that don’t have a hard shoulder.

Nicholas Lyes, Head of Roads Policy at RAC, commented: “The key question is whether these changes are enough to reassure drivers, many of whom firmly believe that removing the hard shoulder compromises safety.

“While the government is keen to point out that all-lane-running smart motorways tend to have a better overall safety record than conventional motorways, the safety comparisons with other types of smart motorways are less impressive.”

Roads Minister Baroness Vere added: “We took the decision to pause the rollout of new smart motorways earlier this year to collect more data and have upgraded hundreds of miles of roads with enforcement cameras, stopped vehicle detection and better signage.

“There should be no upper limit on the safety of our roads which is why I, alongside the Transport Secretary, will continue to do everything I can to ensure drivers are as safe and feel as safe as they possibly can.”

Meanwhile, independent road safety campaigner Meera Naran MBE has called for more precise data that includes which lane collisions occur in, as well as development of in-vehicle technology such as compulsory autonomous emergency braking.

The latest motorway accident statistics

Alongside its announcement about upgrades to smart motorways, National Highways published data showing their impact on road safety.

The tables below show that the number of serious and minor incidents are similar on controlled smart motorways and normal motorways, rising on ALR smart motorways.

Motorway type

Serious injuries/deaths per billion miles travelled (2016-2020)

Controlled smart motorway

0.06

ALR smart motorway

0.19

Normal motorway

0.09

Motorway type

Minor incidents per billion miles travelled (2016-2020)

Controlled smart motorway

0.20

ALR smart motorway

0.33

Normal motorway

0.18

The data also shows that ALR smart motorways have lower collision rates between moving vehicles, but higher rates of stopped-vehicle collisions.

Motorway type

Percentage of all collisions caused by stopped vehicles

Controlled smart motorway

2.36%

ALR smart motorway

5.36%

Normal motorway

2.99%

Stopped-vehicle collisions happen when a driver stops on a smart motorway on what would have been the hard shoulder, and is hit by oncoming traffic that fails to avoid their vehicle.

According to government figures published by Panorama in 2020, 38 people were killed on smart motorways between 2014 and 2019.

Are you confident using a smart motorway when driving for work? Let us know in the comments below.

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