Deployment of “all-lane” intelligent highways has been put on hold due to safety concerns, following a government investigation.
The Department of Transportation (DfT) has announced that it will halt the expansion of smart highways, where the emergency lane is permanently an active traffic lane until there is five years of data on driver safety.
Where work is already underway, a £ 390million modernization program will see additional emergency refuge areas and stopped vehicle detection technology installed where possible.
The decision follows a recommendation of the municipal transport select committee who stressed that there was not enough safety and economic data to justify the continuation of the project.
Activists “shouted” against smart highways
Jason Mercer died in 2019 while driving to work. He had a bypass with a van on a section of the M1 near Sheffield which had been converted to a smart highway.
After the two vehicles stopped, they were struck by a truck. Claire Mercer says her husband would still be alive if there had been a hard shoulder.
What are ‘smart highways’, how much have they cost the taxpayer – and why are they being abandoned?
She told Sky News: “At first I thought it was just a tragic accident. But the more I learned, it never should have happened and it didn’t have to happen.
“Activists have been screaming for years and years about smart highways, it made it so much more painful. “
Ms. Mercer founded Smart Motorways Kill and campaigned for the complete removal of freeways.
She says “none of this is enough” she wants the hard shoulders brought back every time.
“Right-wing government takes stock” of smart highways
In a report, the transport committee called the government’s decision in March 2020 that all future smart highways would be all-lane versions “premature”.
Concerns have been raised following fatal incidents involving disabled vehicles struck from behind.
Roads without an emergency lane linked to more accidents and fatalities
Nicholas Lyes, head of road policy at RAC, told Sky News: “We think it is right for the government to take stock, look at the evidence, look at the data and collect all the data before deciding whether or not to no it’s fair to continue.
“Ultimately, it is the permanent elimination of the emergency lane and insufficient refuge areas that is the problem.
“If a driver stops on a live track, he can potentially be at the mercy of drivers behind him who are not following some of the information on the gantry signs.”
‘Crucial’ must undergo data review, says transportation secretary
Smart highways were introduced in England in 2014 to reduce congestion – there are 375 miles of smart highways, 235 miles without an emergency lane.
Roadways that will not be upgraded to full-lane highways, pending review of five-year safety data, include the M3 J9-14, the M40 / M42 interchange, the M62 J20-25 and the M25 J10- 16.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: ‘Although our initial data shows that smart highways are among the safest roads in the UK, it is crucial that we go further to ensure people feel safer using them.
“Suspending programs for the start of construction and improving existing multi-million pound programs will give drivers confidence and provide the data we need to inform our next steps. “
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Conservative MP Huw Merriman, who chairs the Commons Transport Select Committee, said: “It was clear to our committee that the public needs more assurance that these highways are safe to use.
“With conflicting and patchy evidence spanning a limited number of years, it took longer to properly assess the safety impact.
“By accepting our recommendation to suspend the deployment of smart highways, the government will have the weight of evidence to help in planning the future design of road construction.
“It is important that this extra time is not just spent on assessment, it should be focused on smart highway safety.”
Labor shadow secretary of transport Louise Haigh said: “We know that smart highways in their current form, coupled with inadequate security systems, are not fit for purpose and put lives at risk.
“Ministers were wrong to move forward when strong evidence warned against this.
“Today’s announcement is a welcome step, but ministers should go further and restore the hard shoulder as this security work and the review of the evidence that accompanies it unfolds.”