The roll-out of smart motorways should be stopped immediately to address significant safety concerns, according to a parliamentary group.
MPs have accused the Government and Highways England of behaving with a “shocking degree of carelessness” over the introduction of the controversial road system, claiming commitments to improve safety have been abandoned or watered-down.
The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Roadside Rescue and Recovery has said that a lack of action on emergency refuge areas (ERA) and stopped vehicle detection technology is putting motorists in danger, and has questioned the safety record of the roads.
The day after a BBC Panorama revealed the rising number of near-misses and deaths on smart motorways, the APPG group’s report claimed that the necessary steps had not been taken to protect road users and recovery operators.
Fatal design faults
It highlighted that drivers were nearly twice as likely to suffer a live lane breakdown on a smart motorway compared to conventional one - 38 per cent vs 20 per cent.
It also revealed that a radar-based vehicle detection system is in place on only 25 miles of the 400 miles of smart motorway, despite a commitment to install it across the network. Last year, speaking to parliament, Highways England’s chief executive admitted that such a system could have saved lives had it been more widely in place.
And it criticised a lack of resources that left drivers waiting on the motorway for an average of 17 minutes before a recovery vehicle reached them.
The APPG chairman, Sir Mike Penning, said it was unacceptable that the roll-out continued while these issues remained unresolved and the space between ERAs remained as much as 2.5km.
Sir Mike, who approved the introduction of smart motorways while serving as a transport minister, said the current system did not resemble the design he agreed to.
He said: “It gives me no pleasure to present these findings today – they will be of little succour to the families who are without loved ones today because of design faults in all lane running smart motorways.
“We found that the roll-out of all lane running has been conducted with a shocking degree of carelessness – smart motorways today do not resemble the designs I signed off as roads minister. And Highways England appear to have casually ignored the commitments they made to the House of Commons in 2016. That is not acceptable. They have the safety of millions of road users in their hands.”
The group has said smart motorway roll-out should be stopped until there is at least three years’ worth of data from the whole network showing improved safety compared with conventional motorways. It also wants to see a series of key points addressed. Among those are doubling the number of ERAs on existing roads to ensure they are no more than 800m apart; reducing the live lane breakdown rate to at least that of conventional motorways; fitting stopped vehicle detection systems to all existing roads; reducing vehicle recovery time “markedly” from the current 17 minutes.
RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: “This report shines a light on the huge concerns that exist about the safety of all lane running smart motorways in the event of a breakdown.
"With more than two-thirds of drivers telling the RAC that the permanent removal of the hard shoulder compromises safety in the event of a breakdown, it is now abundantly clear things need to change. The report shows that live-lane breakdowns are higher on all lane running stretches than on conventional motorways, and we know that breaking down in a live lane carries a much higher risk than in a comparative place of safety such as a hard shoulder or an SOS area.
“We have consistently called for the roll-out of stopped vehicle detection radar technology to quickly identify stranded vehicles and additional SOS areas to give drivers a greater chance of reaching one in the event of an emergency, thereby reducing the collision risk. Alongside this, enforcement of lanes closed with red X signs and a smart motorway public information campaign will help improve safety.
“Increasing capacity on our major roads is important, however it is vital that everything is done to reduce the risk to drivers who break down on smart motorways.”