Smart motorways inquiry launched by MPs


An inquiry into smart motorways has been launched by the Transport Committee following growing safety concerns and criticism. The cross-party group of MPs, which is tasked with scrutinising the Department for Transport (DfT), will consider the benefits of smart motorways in reducing congestion versus the adequacy of the safety measures currently in place. It will also examine how safety could be improved.

In addition, the investigation will take into account evidence on whether all-lane running is the most suitable type of smart motorway, how public confidence could be improved and how effective Highways England – the Government-owned company responsible for the strategic road network of motorways and major A roads – has been in rolling out smart motorways.

Announcing the inquiry, the Committee referenced a recent report that found there were 14 fatalities on smart motorways in 2019, up from 11 in 2018 and five in 2017. It also pointed to criticism of smart motorways from two coroners investigating smart motorway deaths, one of whom referred Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service to consider whether corporate manslaughter charges were appropriate.

In a recent appearance in front of the Committee, secretary of state for transport Grant Shapps branded the way in which smart motorways had been rolled out as “entirely wrong”, condemning the fact they “sprung up” without a public information campaign and admitting his surprise at Highways England not having implemented stopped vehicle detection (SVD) technology from the start.

Shapps told the Committee, though, that smart motorways were too expensive to get rid of, as creating new hard shoulders on all of them would require the purchase of land equivalent to “700 Wembley stadiums”.

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The DfT previously conducted an ‘evidence stocktake’ into smart motorways, which resulted in dynamic smart motorways – where the outer lane can switch between being a hard shoulder and a live running lane – being abolished.

All-lane running smart motorways, which do not have a hard shoulder, were kept with a commitment to place emergency refuge areas three-quarters of a mile apart where possible, and no more than one mile apart on any new stretches of smart motorway.

Highways England has also committed to installing SVD technology on all stretches of smart motorway by 2022. At present, drivers whose cars break down in a live lane without SVD have to wait for a CCTV operator to spot them before the lane is closed.

Huw Merriman, chair of the Transport Committee, said: “There are genuine worries about this element of the motorway network and we want to investigate how we got to this point.”

Edmund King, president of the AA, commented: “Coroners, and indeed police and crime commissioners, have voiced serious safety concerns with smart motorways, which makes this inquiry very timely.

“For more than a decade, the AA has campaigned to improve the safety of smart motorways. Tragically, too many people have died on these roads in the interim. Hopefully this inquiry will concentrate minds to stress the urgency of safety improvements.”

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