A new survey conducted by polling organisation YouGov suggests the majority of the British public is opposed to the continued roll-out of smart motorways.
Asked whether they supported or opposed the use of all-lane-running motorways, which remove the hard shoulder in the name of improved traffic flow, 57% of the 1740 respondents said they opposed the scheme, while 25% said they supported it. The remaining 18% were unsure.
Some 64% of participants said they perceived smart motorways to be 'less safe' than conventional motorways, while 7% responded to the contrary. Again, 18% did not offer an opinion.
In response to the survey's findings, a Highways England (HE) spokesperson told Autocar: "In March 2020 the Government published a smart motorway evidence stocktake report and found that in most ways smart motorways are as safe as, or safer than, conventional ones.
“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 (8%) motorway fatalities happen on the hard shoulder.
“But we know people are concerned about breaking down and we are determined to do all we can to make our roads as safe as possible. We have already completed some of the actions set out in the Transport Secretary’s action plan. This includes installing more new technology which will detect if a vehicle has stopped in a live lane."
HE also pointed out that there were 27 fatalities on hard shoulders between 2014 and 2017, and suggested that motorists conduct pre-journey vehicle checks to minimise the risk of a breakdown in a live lane.
The results of the survey come a week after a Sheffield coroner found the deaths of two men on the M1 in 2019 could have been avoided if the stretch of motorway had a hard shoulder.
Coroner David Urpeth is leading calls for a review into the safety of smart motorways, following the deaths of Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu on 7 June 2019 when a lorry driven by Prezemyslaw Szuba crashed into their cars on a stretch of the M1 that had been converted to a smart motorway.
Recording a verdict of unlawful killing at Sheffield Town Hall on 18 January, Urpeth said such road layouts present "an ongoing risk of future deaths" and that he would write to Highways England and transport secretary Grant Shapps to request a review.
Mercer and Murgeanu had exited their vehicles to swap insurance details after colliding with each other. Had there been a hard shoulder for this exchange to take place safely, the inquest heard, the pair may have survived the incident.
Szuba has admitted causing the pair's death by careless driving, for which he was imprisoned last year, but the BBC reports that he told the inquest: "If there had been a hard shoulder on this bit of motorway, the collision would have been avoidable."
Had the inside lane not been used for traffic, Szuba said he would "have driven past these two cars, as it would be safer, and they would have been able to come home safely and I would be able to come back home".
Sergeant Mark Brady of South Yorkshire Police concurred: "Had there been a hard shoulder, had Jason and Alexandru pulled on to the hard shoulder, my opinion is that Mr Szuba would have driven clean past them."
Smart motorways - or all-lane running motorways - have been a subject of controversy since their roll-out in 2010. In November last year, the government gave the green light to nine new sections of smart motorway, despite widespread concerns over their safety.