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UK smart motorway deployment to be paused

Date: 12 January 2022   |   Author: Sean Keywood

The roll-out of all lane running (ALR) smart motorway schemes is to be paused until five years of safety data about them is available, the UK Government has announced.

This is in line with recommendations from a Parliament Transport Committee report, with the Department for Transport (DfT) also investing £900 million to improve safety on existing ALR motorways.

The report, published in November, said the DfT and Highways England (now National Highways) had 'underestimated' the safety measures needed to mitigate the permanent removal of hard shoulders associated with ALR schemes, and failed to deliver safety improvements in a timely fashion.

Although new ALR smart motorway construction projects will be paused, those currently in progress will be completed, with National Highways saying leaving them incomplete would cause 'severe disruption' to drivers.

The conversion of dynamic hard shoulder motorways - where hard shoulders are still available outside peak traffic times - into ALR motorways will also be paused.

The government says the investment will include £390 million on more than 150 additional emergency areas on sections of motorway without hard shoulders, giving drivers more places to stop in an emergency. The government says this will represent a 50% increase in provision by 2025.

The rest of the funding will be used for measures such as stopped vehicle detection and concrete central reservation barriers.

The DfT said it welcomed the report's focus on upgrading existing ALR motorways, rather than reinstating hard shoulders.

The report said evidence suggested hard shoulder did not always provide a safe place to stop, and that by reducing motorway capacity they could put more drivers and passengers at risk if they were to divert onto less safe local roads.

However, the report also said that other smart motorway designs, such as dynamic hard shoulder motorways, had lower casualty rates than ALRs, though the report also noted that hard shoulder running being deployed at irregular times could confuse drivers.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: "One of my first actions as Transport Secretary was to order a stocktake of smart motorways and since then, I have worked consistently to raise the bar on their safety. I am grateful to the Transport Committee and to all those who provided evidence for its work.

"While our initial data shows that smart motorways are among the safest roads in the UK, it's crucial that we go further to ensure people feel safer using them.

"Pausing schemes yet to start construction and making multi-million-pound improvements to existing schemes will give drivers confidence and provide the data we need to inform our next steps."

National Highways CEO Nick Harris said: "We have listened to public concerns about smart motorways and we are fully committed to taking forward the additional measures the Transport Committee has recommended.

"While we pause those all lane running schemes yet to start construction we will complete the schemes currently in construction, we will make existing sections as safe as they can possibly be and we will step up our advice to drivers so they have all the information they need.

"We are doing this because safety is our absolute priority and we want drivers to not just be safer, but also to feel safe on our busiest roads."

Reacting to the government's announcement, RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: "This watershed decision is an unqualified victory for drivers, many of whom have deeply held concerns over the safety of motorways where the hard shoulder is permanently removed. Rather than ploughing on regardless in the face of mounting public opposition, we're pleased the government has finally hit the pause button and given itself time to fully consider the safety of these schemes, and the way our motorways are adapted to increase capacity from now on.

"We have long argued that dynamic hard shoulder and controlled motorway schemes - both of which feature a hard shoulder in some form - should be considered given their good safety record and it's important these options are on the table. A further commitment to install an additional 150 refuge areas on existing schemes to bring them all up to the same standard is positive news and should go some way towards reassuring drivers worried about reaching one in an emergency.

"The safety of our motorway network is paramount and no policy decisions should ever risk making our fastest roads less safe. Today's decision to review a full five years of all the safety data and to look at all possible options with a fresh perspective should ensure our motorways can accommodate increased traffic volumes safely and - just as importantly - that the drivers using them feel safe doing so."