Smart motorway hell shows signs of ending – plans put on ice amid urgent safety fears

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Critics of the electronically assisted motorways, that uses live signage to guide drivers, have claimed they have contributed to some deaths despite increasing road capacity. In a bid to better understand the efficiency and safety of the system, the Government will now gather five years of data from motorways built before 2020. Existing routes will not have their hard shoulders reinstated but the Government’s move comes after MPs said in November there was not enough safety and economic data to justify this type of route.

In the event of a car breaking down on all-lane running smart motorways, drivers are meant to aim for emergency refuge areas.

But critics say the schemes can leave cars stranded in fast-moving traffic.
Highways England says there are roughly 400 miles of smart motorway – roads that use technology to maintain the flow of traffic and give information on overhead displays – already in action.

About 200 of these lack a permanent hard shoulder, 63 miles use it as a live running lane some of the time.

Examples of the system exist on the M1 between Watford and Milton Keynes.

The decision means that another 100 miles of all-lane running currently in construction can still be completed, while 57 miles are paused for now.

According to government figures, 38 people were killed on smart motorways between 2014 and 2019.

The roll-out pause means work on the M3 between junctions 9 and 14, the M40/M42 interchange, on the M62 between junctions 20 and 25, and on the M25 between junctions 10 and 16 will be suspended.

Schemes that are already under construction will be completed, the Government said, and on existing all-lane running motorways, £390m of public funds will be provided for more refuge areas and technology to detect stopped vehicles.

Refuge areas should be no more than one mile apart, and less apart where possible, it said, as opposed to being up to 1.5 miles between them at the moment.

According to Autocar, the cost of converting an existing hard shoulder is £5-15 million per mile compared with the £75m per mile cost of building a new lane.

Reports also suggest that the technology monitoring the roads is far from ideal.

READ MORE:
New smart motorway roads will not be built for years

An investigation by The Telegraph claimed staff working at National Highways had christened the computer systems controlling smart motorways ‘Die Now’ after they crashed three times in four days.

Furthermore, an undercover reporter from The Daily Mail spent six weeks undercover at a Highways England control station operating the cameras.

A series of shocking discoveries included the revelation that more than one in 10 of the CCTV cameras tracking the road were either broken or pointing in the wrong direction, including into fields and the sky.

An official government review in the Spring of 2021 concluded smart motorways were safer than conventional ones.

It also stated their rollout would continue, but not before new radar detection technology was installed to live monitor lanes to improve safety and effectiveness.

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The review did not however mention software controlling them or the failing CCTV cameras relaying the images on which life or death decisions are made.

Meanwhile, the Government has pledged £900 million to improve safety on existing smart motorways, of which £390m has been allocated to installing more than 150 new refuge areas across the network by 2025.

The Government says this will create a 50 percent increase in the number of places to stop in the event of a breakdown.

The rest of the money will be spent on new technology to detect stopped vehicles, installing concrete central reservations and other safety improvements.

National Highways says it will also “ramp up communications so drivers have better information about how to drive on smart motorways”.

The AA recommends updating the Highway Code to advise drivers in the right-hand lane to pull over to the right, and drivers in the left lane to do the opposite, thereby leaving a clear path through traffic for emergency vehicles.



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