Transport Secretary Grant Shapps admits ‘people are dying’ on smart motorways as he calls for review after eight deaths – as highways chief says drivers find roads ‘too complicated’
- Driver safety on smart motorways under review, Transport Secretary announces
- Grant Shapps told MPs ‘we know people are dying’ on Britain’s smart network
- It comes after Highways England boss said no more ‘dynamic’ smart motorways will be rolled out
- Chief Executive Jim O’Sullivan claimed motorists did not understand the system
Grant Shapps told MPs ‘we know people are dying’ on smart motorways but added greater detail is required on how safe they are compared to full motorways
Driver safety on smart motorways is under review with recommendations expected within weeks, according to the Transport Secretary.
Grant Shapps told MPs ‘we know people are dying’ on smart motorways but added greater detail is required on how safe they are compared to full motorways.
He insisted he wants to ensure all motorways in the country are ‘as safe as they possibly can be’ after eight deaths on the smart network.
His confirmation of the review comes after Highways England chief executive Jim O’Sullivan told the Transport Select Committee that smart motorways with a hard shoulder only used at busy times are ‘too complicated for people to use’.
He said it will not build any more ‘dynamic’ smart motorways – one of three used on Britain’s roads – because too many motorists do not understand them. The design is already in use on parts of the M1, M4, M5, M6, M42 and M62.
The roads boss also said drivers has been killed on smart motorways because of delays in installing technology to spot broken-down vehicles. He admitted to MPs yesterday that tragedies could have been averted had the vehicle detection systems been in place.
Speaking in the Commons today, Mr Shapps told MPs: ‘The House I know is very concerned about smart motorways.
‘I’ve heard those concerns raised today and previously and I have asked my department to carry out at pace an evidence stocktake to gather the facts quickly and make recommendations.’
Mr Shapps insisted he wants to ensure all motorways in the country are ‘as safe as they possibly can be’ after eight deaths on the smart network. (M1 smart motorway pictured, file image)
Lilian Greenwood, Labour chairwoman of the committee, asked if the review would be carried out by the Department for Transport or an independent person.
Mr Shapps replied: ‘I will ensure that it’s the department that is making decisions on this because I think some of the statistics have been difficult to understand, and we know people are dying on smart motorways.
‘Of course, we know 70 or 80 people die a year on full motorways.
‘Understanding whether they are less safe, the same or safer – it turns out not to be as straightforward as members might imagine – I want all of those facts and recommendations that can be put into place to ensure that all of our motorways are as safe as they possibly can be.
‘I will get this done in a matter of weeks.’
Philip Gomm, of motoring research charity the RAC Foundation, said: ‘Highways England says it is ‘data led’, but despite its reassurances that the numbers point to smart motorways being safe, that message has failed to reassure many drivers.
Highways England said it will not build any more ‘smart motorways’ because too many motorists do not understand them and are confused about when they can use the hard shoulder
‘This review is therefore timely, but whatever the conclusion the big challenge will be in successfully reporting those conclusions to sceptical road users.’
Yesterday Mr O’Sullivan said that the ‘dynamic’ type of smart motorways, where the hard shoulder is used only at peak times ‘are too complicated for people to use’ and no more will be rolled out.
The ‘dynamic’ design, one of three types used on British roads, is in use on parts of the M1, M4, M5, M6, M42 and M62, and account for 68 miles of the ‘smart’ network.
A further 135 miles uses the ‘all lane running’ system, where there is no hard shoulder but there are emergency refuge areas at intermittent intervals. A third variety of smart motorway – ‘controlled motorways’ – which have variable speed limits but retain the hard shoulder for emergencies is in use over 120 miles of road.
Jim O’Sullivan (pictured) chief executive of Highways England, yesterday told MPs no more ‘dynamic’ smart motorways will be rolled out in Britain because they are ‘too complicated’
In 2016 road chiefs promised to install ‘stopped vehicle detection’ systems across the network of smart motorways. But three years later, only a fifth of the network has been fitted with the life-saving radar technology.
In that time, there have been a series of deaths on the roads caused by drivers breaking down in a live lane of traffic.
On smart motorways, the hard shoulder is replaced by a lane to cut congestion, leaving drivers who suddenly break down stuck in the midst of fast traffic and forcing others behind them to abruptly change lanes.
Though parking refuges are available at intervals, they cannot always be reached by drivers whose cars fail.
Lilian Greenwood, chairman of the Commons transport committee, asked Mr O’Sullivan yesterday: ‘If stopped vehicle detection had been in place on all-lane-running schemes from the start, how many deaths would have been prevented?’
Mr O’Sullivan told MPs: ‘It’s impossible to quantify.
‘Of the eight fatalities, undoubtedly one or two might have been avoided, but not all of them would.’
Highways England is testing a Swedish system, but it has hit problems using it in different types of weather. Mr O’Sullivan said: ‘This is ground-breaking technology. We had to prove it before we could roll it out.’
Four people were killed on the M1 in just ten months after being hit by traffic in a live lane that used to be the hard shoulder. In each case, the victim had failed to reach a refuge area.
Figures revealed that 19,316 motorists suffered the horror of breaking down in a live lane in 2017 and 2018 – a rate of 26 a day.
Smart motorways have been developed as a way of increasing capacity and reducing congestion without the more costly process of widening roads
To add to the concerns, Mr O’Sullivan also revealed that ‘dynamic’ smart motorways will no longer be built with semi-permanent hard shoulders because drivers find them ‘too complicated’.
However, many drivers consider them relatively safer than all-lane-running smart motorways, which have regularly spaced refuges.
The Government has spent millions on gantries and control rooms to tell drivers when they can use the hard shoulder.
But Mr O’Sullivan told the transport committee: ‘We get people confused between it being a hard shoulder and a running lane, and we get people who stop there when it’s a running lane.’
The announcement means the hard shoulder could become a thing of the past once the entire motorway network is converted to all-lane-running, or ALR.
Mr O’Sullivan admitted there is a ‘higher likelihood’ of breaking down on an ALR motorway than a traditional one.
‘Partly this is because they are busier roads,’ he said. ‘In many cases our busiest motorways are commuting motorways. It’s more likely you will have checked your tyres and fuel level before setting off on a longer journey.’
Pressed on whether he would prefer to break down in the live lane of a smart motorway or a conventional one, Mr O’Sullivan said only that he would rather not break down in the first place.
RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said stopped vehicle detection ‘needs to be retrofitted to all existing smart motorways as a matter of urgency’.
A Highways England spokesman said stopped vehicle technology will be on all schemes built from 2020 and added: ‘We are retrofitting it on the M3 and are developing a rollout programme for other existing all-lane-running schemes.
‘Smart motorways have more safety features than conventional motorways.’
What are the three types of ‘smart’ motorways and how do they work?
All lane running schemes permanently remove the hard shoulder and convert it into a running lane.
On these types of motorway, lane one (formerly the hard shoulder) is only closed to traffic in the event of an incident.
In this case a lane closure will be signalled by a red X on the gantry above, meaning you must exit the lane as soon as possible.
All running lane motorways also have overhead gantry signs that display the mandatory speed limit.
Should drivers break down or be involved in an accident there are emergency refuge areas at the side of the carriageway for them to use.
Controlled motorways have three or more lanes with variable speed limits, but retains a hard shoulder. The hard shoulder should only be used in a genuine emergency.
These variable speed limits are displayed on overhead gantry signs – if no speed limit is displayed the national speed limit is in place. Speed cameras are used to enforce these.
‘Dynamic’ hard shoulder running involves open the hard shoulder as a running lane to traffic at busy periods to ease congestion.
On these stretches a solid white line differentiates the hard shoulder from the normal carriageway. Overhead signs on gantries indicate whether or not the hard shoulder is open to traffic.
The hard shoulder must not be used if the signs over it are blank or display a red X, except in the case of an emergency.
A red X on the gantry above means you must exit the lane as soon as possible.
Overhead gantries on these types of motorway also display the mandatory speed limit which varies depending on the traffic conditions. Speed cameras are used to enforce these – no speed limit displayed indicates the national speed limit is in place.
Where are Britain’s ‘smart’ motorways?
Smart motorways’ are supposed to ease congestion by allowing cars to drive on the hard shoulder at least some of the time, with traffic being monitored via cameras and ‘active’ speed signs.
There are currently more than 20 sections of ‘smart motorway’ on seven different motorways, including on sections of the M1, the M25, the M6, the M42 and the M4.
Six more are under construction and another 18 are being planned.
However Highways England said a ‘comprehensive’ review of ‘smart motorways’ would be carried out after admitting lower limits were not always correctly set.
There are currently more than 20 sections of ‘smart motorway’ on seven different motorways, including on sections of the M25 and the M6
Jim O’Sullivan, chief executive, said that 40, 50 or 60mph limits were being set before congestion mounted on ‘smart motorways’ in England, using predictions about traffic levels.
Data has showed that 72,348 people were fined on motorways with variable speed limits last year. This was almost double the number a year earlier and a tenfold rise in five years.
Of those, two thirds of fines were handed out to motorists travelling at 69mph or below, even though the national speed limit is 70mph.
Highways England’s advice on driving on smart motorways includes a list of recommendations:
- Never drive under a red ‘X’ sign
- Keep to the speed limit shown on the gantries
- A solid white line indicates the hard shoulder – don’t drive in it unless directed by signs
- Broken white lines show a normal running lane
- Use the refuge areas for emergencies if there’s no hard shoulder
- Put hazard lights on if you break down.
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