Since smart highways were introduced in the UK in 2006, they have proved highly controversial. The concept was introduced to build needed capacity on key parts of a congested road network.
But the removal of the regular hard shoulder — the left-hand side lane of most highways normally reserved for emergency use — has been blamed for causing the deaths of stranded motorists.
Rishi Sunak’s government now says plans for new smart highways will be canceled “in recognition of the current lack of public confidence from drivers and cost pressures”.
Eleven schemes that are currently “on hold” – as well as future smart highways set to be built between 2025 and 2030 – will now not go ahead.
The previous prime minister, Liz Truss, promised to tear down all smart highways. This will not happen; existing smart highways will continue to operate, with safety improvements.
But what will the decision mean for motorists and road safety?
Who Introduced Smart Highways?
Smart motorways were introduced in 2006 under Tony Blair’s government, the first to open on the M42 in the Midlands.
Labor peer Lord Jordan – who is president for life of the accident prevention charity, RoSPA – told parliament in a debate in 2020: ‘When the first smart motorway experiment opened on the M42 in 2006, has shown great potential to improve the situation caused by the growing congestion on British motorways.
“Using technology, new techniques have been developed to better handle the growing volumes of traffic. Warning systems have facilitated and even avoided traffic jams, warned motorists of congestion points, and proved invaluable in emergency situations.
Since the trial, millions of pounds have been invested in expanding the scheme onto roads such as the M1, M4, M5, M6, M60 and M62.
What is a smart highway?
A heavily traveled stretch of highway where traffic management methods are used to increase capacity and reduce congestion.
There are three types:
Variable speed limits – highways where the default is the national speed limit of 70 mph but can be reduced with specific lower limits on overhead signs. The goal is to reduce congestion and increase safety by slowing speed.
Dynamic hard shoulder running – during peak hours the hard shoulder opens to traffic, adding extra capacity. Signs above indicate if the lane is in use.
Whole lane running – the hard shoulder is used permanently as an auxiliary lane, with emergency shelters intermittently installed to allow motorists with mechanical or other problems to gain protection from traffic. Since the scheme began in 2014, 141 miles of single lane highways have been created. In the event of a breakdown, when “stationary vehicle technology” is in place, national highways take an average of one minute to close the lane.
Which motorway sections are smart?
The M25 is fully intelligent. Some of the motorways it crosses, including the M23, M3 and M4, are suitable for sections near London. The M1 runs smart for most of its length between London and Leeds.
Parts of the M62, near Leeds, Bradford and Manchester, are smart. The M6 through Cheshire, Staffordshire and the West Midlands is smart, as are the buttresses (short stretches of motorway) near Birmingham on the M42 and M5.
What are the concerns?
Activists say 75 lives have been lost on the smart highways and several coroners have called for a review of the policy. The Select Committee on Transport, which has studied smart highways extensively, has expressed serious concerns about the risks they pose.
Dynamic motorways with hard shoulder, meanwhile, “apparently confuse drivers, because the hard shoulder is used unpredictably to deal with congestion,” says the MPs’ all-party committee.
“A more consistent approach, where the hard shoulder is used at known times, could clarify the situation for drivers without physically removing the hard shoulder.”
On all-lane driving, MPs’ concern is that it deprives stranded motorists of an immediate escape from traffic – with insufficient emergency shelters.
“Deaths on highways without a permanent hard shoulder increased from five in 2017 to 15 in 2019,” the committee says.
“Other forms of smart highways, where the hard shoulder is converted to an active lane during peak congestion hours, have lower accident rates than total hard shoulder removal.”
Its recent report states: “National highways should therefore suspend the rollout of all-lane highways to collect more data, update and then evaluate the safety of existing all-lane highway schemes and consider alternative options to improve capacity on the strategic road Network.”
Edmund King, president of the AA, describes the concept as “extending the highway on the cheap.” He told the Telegraph: “At least 40 people paid the highest price. This is the scandal of smart highways”.
What did the ministers decide?
Sunak said: “All drivers deserve to trust the roads they use to get around the country.
“Many people across the country rely on driving to get to work, get their children to school and go about their daily lives and I want them to be able to do so with full confidence that the roads they drive on are safe.”
Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: ‘We want the public to know that this government is listening to their concerns. Today’s announcement means no new smart highways will be built, acknowledging the lack of public confidence from drivers and cost pressures from inflation.”
The government and National Highways had already earmarked £900m for “further safety improvements on existing smart highways”.
This involves installing 150 additional emergency zones across the network and “improving the performance of stationary vehicle detection technology on every smart highway that runs through all lanes.”
What will be the effect?
Compared to the situation, if the planned new smart highways went ahead, congestion is likely to increase and roads could become more dangerous.
Some motorists may switch to less safe rural roads, increasing the risks to themselves and other road users.
The MPs’ report on the Select Committee on Transport concluded: ‘We are not convinced that restoring the hard shoulder on all single lane motorways will improve safety.
“Evidence suggests this could put more drivers and passengers at risk of death and serious injury.”
Are there other ways to increase road safety?
YES. If the driving age were raised from 17 to 25 and motorcycles were banned, the number of fatalities would drop dramatically.
Drivers aged 85 and over were asked to take a second test for safety reasons.
Financial moves could help, such as doubling the price of fuel or halving the cost of train tickets.
But such moves would be politically impossible. In the long run, autonomous vehicles represent the best hope of reducing the number of tragedies on the roads.