Rollout and safety of smart motorways – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Transport Committee

Related inquiry: The rollout and safety of smart motorways

Date Published: 2 November 2021

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This is not the first Transport Select Committee Report scrutinising all-lane running motorways. In 2016, the then Transport Committee expressed deep scepticism about the design and implementation of all-lane running motorways. In response, the Department and Highways England promised safety improvements. However, the promised safety improvements were delivered neither efficiently nor effectively. Although we welcome the Department’s belated acceleration of safety improvements to all-lane running motorways, it is regrettable that the Government should find itself in this position. Safety risks on all-lane running motorways, such as those raised by our predecessor Committee in 2016, should have been addressed before those motorways were rolled out.

To guard against the introduction of such unsafe changes on the Strategic Road Network, the Department should make the introduction of operational and design changes contingent on a formal health and safety assessment by the Office of Rail and Road. In addition, the Department and National Highways should pause the rollout of all-lane running motorways until five-years of safety data is available for the remaining 112 miles of all-lane running motorway introduced before 2020. Finally, the Department and National Highways should:

  • retrofit emergency refuge areas to existing all-lane running motorways to make them a maximum of 1 mile apart, decreasing to every 0.75 miles where physically possible;
  • commission the Office of Rail and Road to conduct an independent evaluation of the effectiveness and operation of stopped vehicle technology; and
  • insert the emergency corridor manoeuvre into the Highway Code to help emergency services and traffic patrol officers to access incidents when traffic is congested.

While we welcome the introduction of the action plan, it is unclear whether the interventions that the Government and National Highways are rolling out will effectively mitigate the specific safety risks associated with the removal of the hard shoulder. To clarify that point, the Office of Rail and Road should be tasked with evaluating how successful the action plan has been in

  • reducing incidences of live lane breakdowns on all-lane running motorways;
  • reducing the time for which people who breakdown or stop in a live lane are at risk; and
  • educating drivers on what to do if they breakdown in a live lane.

The Government’s decision in March 2020 that all new smart motorways will be all-lane running motorways was premature. The Government and National Highways should therefore pause the rollout of all-lane running motorways to collect more data, to upgrade and then evaluate the safety of existing all-lane running schemes and to consider alternative options for enhancing capacity on the Strategic Road Network. The Government and National Highways should pause the rollout of new all-lane running schemes until five years of safety and economic data is available for every all-lane running scheme introduced before 2020 and the implementation of the safety improvements in the Government’s action plan has been independently evaluated.

Dynamic hard shoulder motorways apparently confuse drivers, because the hard shoulder is used unpredictably to tackle congestion. A more consistent approach, where the hard shoulder is used at known times, could clarify the situation for drivers without physically removing the hard shoulder. The Department and National Highways should pause plans to convert dynamic hard shoulder motorways until the next Road Investment Strategy and use the intervening period to trial alternative ways in which to operate the dynamic hard shoulder to make the rules less confusing for drivers.

Controlled motorways, which retain the hard shoulder and have technology to regulate traffic, have the lowest casualty rates of all the types of motorway on the Strategic Road Network. The Department and National Highways should revisit the case for controlled motorways. The Department must carefully consider how the business case for controlled motorways compares with that for all-lane running motorways.

In conclusion, we are not convinced that reinstating the hard shoulder on all all-lane running motorways will improve safety. The evidence suggests that doing so could put more drivers and passengers at risk of death and serious injury. The Government is right to focus on upgrading the safety of all-lane running motorways.