Smart motorways were introduced as a cost-effective way to increase capacity on congested motorways; but safety concerns have been clear from the start. We highlighted their risks early on – and reviewed some of these concerns in a blog post last year. This week a coroner has suggested SMART motorways present an ‘ongoing risk of future deaths’.
It was ruled that the lack of a hard shoulder significantly contributed to the death of 2 men struck by a lorry, who had stopped to exchange details following a minor collision. Worryingly, there have been many similar cases reported.
What are the benefits of a SMART motorway?
The main purpose of smart motorways is to ease congestion. This is by permitting cars to be driven on the hard shoulder, with traffic being monitored via cameras and ‘active’ speed signs which can vary the limit.
In addition, motorists are instructed to stop at the next emergency refuge area (ERA) if their car experiences difficulties. These areas are small bays located off the hard shoulder, which should not be more than 1.5 miles apart. Vehicles that are unable to reach an ERA are advised to move onto the verge – provided they are able to do so, and assuming there is no safety barrier.
However cars which have broken down completely face being stuck in a live motorway lane. They are reliant on being spotted either by CCTV operators or an automated stationary vehicle detection system. Once such breakdowns have been identified, the relevant lane will be closed to traffic with a red X symbol shown on signs ahead o– until the vehicle can be rescued. However, problems have resulted from this process taking far too long and putting motorists in grave danger.
How many SMART motorways are there?
There are around 500 miles of smart motorways in England. This includes sections of the M1, M4, M5, M6, M25 and M62.
How many deaths have there been?
The safety concerns are clear. In the last 5 years nearly 40 people have died on smart motorways. Typical incidents have included malfunctioning cars coming to a halt before being smashed into by large vehicles unable to react in time.
The latest figures show that serious crashes have rocketed more than 23 times from 0.3 per year to 7, whilst ‘slight collisions’ have almost quadrupled.
According to the RAC, more than two-thirds (68%) of drivers in England think this compromises safety for those who breakdown in a live lane. Moreover, findings reported by the AA suggest that cars which break down on smart motorways face significantly higher levels of danger than vehicles on traditional stretches of motorway.
The evidence suggests the smart motorway experiment has badly backfired with deadly consequences. Following the latest fatalities, road bosses have finally been ordered to draw up plans to ramp up the smart motorway safety measures. Critics will argue this action is far too late.