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Smart motorway ban: campaigners want hard shoulders reinstated

As government axes plans for new smart motorways, it’s urged to go further and scrap existing all-lane running schemes

smart motorway

The AA is leading calls for all-lane running ‘smart motorways’ to be scrapped and hard shoulders restored, following the government’s announcement last week that no new schemes would be built.

While the government’s decision has been called a ‘victory for common sense’ and follows years of protest from drivers’ groups, it doesn’t affect the existing 375-mile network of smart motorways - 235 miles of which have no hard shoulder.. 

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Safety campaigners say smart motorways have been responsible for a rise in the number of motorway fatalities, as the introduction of all-lane running means there’s no hard shoulder on which stricken vehicles can escape from fast moving traffic. The government’s decision to scrap 14 further schemes acknowledges a lack of public confidence in all-lane running, but is also described as a cost-saving measure. Indeed, it has made a commitment to continuing all-lane running on existing schemes, in spite of the opposition among drivers - and two schemes on the M6 and M56 will continue to be built as they’re already nearing completion.

AA president Edmund King, told the BBC that he welcomed the news that further schemes were to be scrapped, but pledged to fight on in an effort to get permanent hard shoulders restored across existing smart motorways.

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"Drivers don't trust them, the technology is not foolproof, and 37 per cent of breakdowns on smart motorways happen in live lanes. And basically those drivers are sitting ducks," he said.

"We have had enough coroners passing down their deadly and heart-breaking judgements where the lack of a hard shoulder has contributed to deaths. At last the Government has listened and we are delighted to see the roll-out of 'smart' motorways scrapped. We would also like to see the hard shoulder reinstated on existing stretches in due course."

Smart motorway safety improvements

In response to safety concerns, the government and National Highways has previously pledged to invest £900 million in further safety improvements on existing smart motorways.

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“This includes progressing plans on installing 150 extra emergency [refuge] areas across the network in line with the commitments made in response to the Transport Select Committee, as well as improving the performance of stopped vehicle detection technology on every all lane running smart motorway,” the Department for Transport says.

Campaigner Cllair Mercer’s husband was one of the victims of all-lane running, after he was killed on a ‘smart’ section of the M1 following a minor traffic collision. She welcomes the news that new schemes are to be scrapped, but told the PA news agency: “It’s the existing ones that are killing us. And I’m not settling for more emergency refuge areas. So it’s half the battle, but we’ve still got half the battle to go.”

RAC road safety spokesman Simon Williams said: ""Our research shows all lane running smart motorways are deeply unpopular with drivers so we're pleased the Government has finally arrived at the same conclusion. It's now vitally important that plans are made for making the hundreds of existing miles of these types of motorway as safe as possible. The possibility of converting all lane running stretches to the 'dynamic hard shoulder' configuration, where the hard shoulder is open and closed depending on the levels of traffic, could be one option the Government considers."

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The latest government announcement banning new smart motorways developments cites concerns over safety and costs. It will see 11 smart motorways that were already under construction removed from road building plans. Three more of the roads that were scheduled for construction will not be built at all. 

Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak pledged to ban smart motorways during his campaign for leadership of the Conservative Party in 2022. "All drivers deserve to have confidence in the roads they use to get around the country, that's why last year I pledged to stop the building of all new smart motorways, and today I'm making good on that promise," he said.

Smart motorways: a history

The smart motorway concept was introduced to England in 2014 in a bid to ease congestion by making use of existing hard shoulder areas for normal driving but safety concerns mounted due to the number of breakdowns in live lanes and a series of high profile accidents. There are currently 375 miles of smart motorway in the UK with 235 of those miles featuring no hard shoulder. 

In 2019 plans for a significant expansion of the smart motorway network amounting to hundreds of miles were announced, with the Government stating that 400 miles of new smart motorway would be built in England by 2025. In 2021, however, the roll-out of all-lane running (ALR) smart motorways was paused while more accurate safety data on the roads could be collected. Now that pause has become an outright ban.

Do you think UK roads are getting more dangerous? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below...

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Current affairs and features editor

Chris covers all aspects of motoring life for Auto Express. Over a long career he has contributed news and car reviews to brands such as Autocar, WhatCar?, PistonHeads, Goodwood and The Motor Trader.

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