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Accidents on smart motorways – the end of the problem?

Many of us will have been on a smart motorway in the last few years. Despite the intentions behind smart motorways, safety concerns have continued to grow.

Gemma Stanley

by Gemma Stanley

calendar_month 5 May 23

schedule 2 min read

Many of us will have been on a smart motorway in the last few years. In fact, around 10% of the UK’s motorway network is now made up of smart motorways. They were developed by Highways England as a way to manage the ever-increasing amount of traffic on our UK roads by using the existing lanes in new ways.

The three schemes currently in places on smart motorways are:

  • All lane running schemes – where the hard shoulder is permanently converted into a running lane
  • Dynamic hard shoulder schemes – where the hard shoulder is used as a running lane during busy periods
  • Controlled motorways – which have three or more lanes with variable speed limits but retain a hard shoulder

Variable speed limits are set to control the flow of traffic and are displayed to drivers by overhead gantry signs. A red X is shown above a lane if it should not be used. Compliance is monitored by speed cameras and CCTV, and fines of up to £2,500 can be given to offenders.

Concerns have continued to grow

Despite the intentions behind smart motorways, safety concerns have continued to grow.

The BBC’s Panorama programme which aired in 2020 revealed that 38 people had been killed on smart motorways between 2015 and 2019 and many more injured and subject to ‘near misses’. Drivers of broken down vehicles in live traffic lanes have been described as “sitting ducks”. A Highways England report revealed that CCTV operators take an average of 17 minutes to spot stranded vehicles, another three minutes before the lane closure sign is activated and then on average another 17 minutes for the vehicle to be recovered.

Road safety groups such as the RAC and the AA have bolstered concerns.

Families of those who have died have fought to raise awareness and challenge the roll-out of smart motorways. Claire Mercer founded the campaign group ‘Smart Motorways Kill’ after her husband Jason was killed when he was involved in a collision with another driver and stuck in the inside lane of an all lanes running stretch of the M1, when he and the other driver were hit by a HGV.

This week, the government has announced that plans for all new smart motorways will be cancelled “in recognition of the current lack of public confidence felt by drivers and cost pressures”. They have also set aside £900m for safety improvements on existing smart motorways such as introducing more emergency areas and enhancing stopped vehicle detection.

For campaigners, the announcement will be bittersweet. Existing smart motorways will continue to pose safety risks, although there is hope things will improve in the future.

If you or a family member have been in an accident on a smart motorway please get in touch with our specialist team now for advice on how we can help.


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