Transport secretary Grant Shapps has publicly admitted to flaws in the roll-out of 'smart motorways' in the UK, outlining a number of planned measures to improve the safety and reputation of such roads.
Speaking yesterday (3 February) to the Commons Transport Select Committee, Shapps suggested that the use of 'smart' to describe all-lane-running motorways is a "misnomer" and that "mistakes were made" in their introduction.
His comments follow the recent ruling of Sheffield coroner David Urpeth which found the deaths of two men in a 2019 crash could have been prevented if there had been a hard shoulder on the stretch of smart motorway on which it occurred.
Among the failures identified by Shapps are a shortage of emergency lay-bys and inadequate technology for the detection of broken-down vehicles in live lanes.
Shapps "wouldn't have gone about it like this", had he overseen the early stages of the smart motorway roll-out, and vowed to usher in safety-improving measures, including additional refuge areas, penalties for ignoring lane closure warnings and radar technology that can detect a broken-down vehicle in as little as 20sec.
Improved breakdown detection technology was previously set to be installed on several stretches of smart motorway by 2025, but that deadline was brought forward to March 2023 last year. Now, Shapps said he will bring that deadline forward again, with all smart motorways receiving the technology in 2022.
Shapps highlighted the 1.5-mile gap between lay-bys as a particular safety risk of the scheme, telling the committee: "I don’t approve of the fact that the emergency areas were being spaced way too far apart. I’ve inherited all that. I’ve said they have to be ideally three-quarters of a mile [and] no more than a mile.
“Why these things were ever called smart motorways when they seemed to be anything but. I think was a misnomer.”
To reverse the scheme completely would mean acquiring the equivalent of "700 Wembley stadium-sized football pitches" in land, the destruction of "acres" of green-belt land and the compulsory purchase of homes, Shapps said, adding: "I don't see that there's a route through to simply undo it. We've got to make what's there safe".
Shapps argued that, despite the safety concerns, smart motorways have a lower death rate than conventional roads and that to phase them out would be "going against the evidence".
Shapps also suggested that Urpeth had not been made aware of a 2019 review into the safety of smart motorways, which resulted in several new safety measures being introduced as part of a so-called 'stocktake' last year.
The results of a recent YouGov poll found 57% of respondents opposed the use of all-lane-running motorways, with 64% deeming such roads "less safe" than conventional motorways. Highways England told Autocar: “Overall, the risks for road users are less compared to conventional motorways and the stocktake report indicates that smart motorways have reduced the casualty rate by 18%.
"Drivers need to be aware that on average one in 12 motorway fatalities happen on the hard shoulder."