The Government has announced an 18-point “action plan” to improve safety on smart motorways.
Among the measures set to be implemented are an increase in the number of emergency refuge areas, an acceleration of the introduction of stopped vehicle detection systems and abolishing dynamic hard shoulder sections of road.
The safety of the roads has been called into question by reports highlighting a sharp rise in near-misses and a number of fatal collisions involving broken-down cars in live lanes.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps ordered an urgent “evidence stocktake” around the controversial roads in January and this has formed the basis of the new package of measures.
Announcing the measures he said: “Overall, what the evidence shows is that in most ways, smart motorways are as safe as, or safer than, the conventional ones. But not in every way. To ensure we are doing all we can do to improve safety, I am publishing a package of 18 measures. This will allow us to retain the benefits of smart motorways while addressing the concerns that have been identified.”
More refuge areas and patrols
Among the main steps is the abolition of dynamic hard shoulders, where the lane can be switched between an emergency lane or live traffic lane depending on traffic volume. However, the RAC has claimed this move is a red herring as such roads represent only a fraction of the network and are no longer being introduced.
The report also reveals plans to install stopped vehicle detection technology on all smart motorways within three years - the first time a timetable for this has been given.
Several steps will be taken to improve emergency refuge areas, including reducing the gap between them to three-quarters of a mile “where feasible” and considering introducing new ones on existing stretches where the gap is more than a mile. An existing programme to make all ERAs more visible by painting them orange and improving signage will be completed by the end of 2020, with an investigation into widening any ERAs narrower than 15 feet.
Mr Shapps also said there would be “faster attendance by more Highways England traffic officer patrols”, with the aim of reducing the attendance time to a breakdown from an average of 17 minutes to 10 minutes.
And he announced a £5 million public awareness campaign to improve communication with drivers and educate them on how to safely use smart motorways.
‘Remains to be seen if measures are enough’
The announcement of new measures has been welcomed, with the AA’s president Edmund King calling them a “victory for common sense and safety” but questions have been raised about the effectiveness and timescale of some of the plans.
RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: “While it is welcome that the Government has listened to [drivers’] concerns and undertaken this review, it remains to be seen whether these measures go far enough to protect drivers who are unfortunate enough to break down in live lanes.
“The safe running of any smart motorway heavily depends on drivers being able to see, and react to red X signage indicating where lanes are closed. We are disappointed that the review has not looked at the spacing of red X gantry signage as we believe in too many instances signs are spaced too far apart. The difference between a driver seeing and reacting to a red X sign, or missing it, could literally be life or death.
“The commitment to install stopped vehicle detection technology on the whole network is a positive step, but a three-year time frame will feel like an eternity considering the concerns many drivers have about all lane running schemes.
“This is somewhat compensated by the promise of more Highways England patrol officers on certain stretches, but the key challenge must be to get live lanes closed as soon as possible, so a priority should also be to have more cameras and more staff in control centres to monitor the network.
“The Government says it is considering a national programme for installing more refuge areas on the smart motorway network – we say that they should consider no longer and make it an absolute priority going forward.”
Edmund King, added: “The fact that 38 per cent of breakdowns happen in live lanes on smart motorways means drivers have been at risk. Tragically people have lost their lives, and in some cases coroners have indicated this could have been avoided.
“We applaud the current Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps MP, for instigating the review and taking this issue very seriously. We believe the intention to place ERAs at every three-quarters of a mile is a great outcome and what we have called for over the last decade.”