Editor, Safety & Health Practitioner

Author Bio ▼

Ian joined Informa (formerly UBM) in 2018 as the Editor of SHP. Ian studied journalism at university before spending seven years in online fantasy gaming. Prior to moving to Informa, Ian worked in business to business trade print media, in the automotive sector. He was Online Editor and then moved on to be the Editor of two publications aimed at independent automotive technicians and parts distributors.
January 25, 2021

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Smart motorways

How safe are smart motorways? Only 48% of motorists say they know how to use them

More than half of UK motorist claim not to understand the rules of smart motorways, according to a poll.

busy traffic on uk motorway road

A survey, which was commissioned by road safety charity Brake and breakdown recovery firm Green Flag and quizzed 2,010 UK motorists, has discovered that just 48% know how to use smart motorways and 25% said they don’t know what a smart motorway is.

Approximately 500 miles of motorways in England are ‘smart’ with plans for another 300 miles planned in the next five years.

There are several key rules, which motorists claim not to know.

Rules of smart motorways

  • Never drive in a lane closed by a Red X.
  • Keep to the speed limits shown on the signs.
  • A hard shoulder is always identified by a solid white unbroken line – if there’s no speed limit displayed above it or a Red X is displayed, do not use it except in emergency.
  • A broken white line indicates a normal running lane.
  • If the hard shoulder is being used as an extra lane, use the designated emergency areas for emergencies.
  • If your vehicle experiences difficulties, e.g. warning light, exit the motorway immediately, if you can.
  • If you break down, put your hazard lights on.
  • Most breakdowns are preventable – keep your car well maintained, check your tyres and make sure you have enough fuel for your journey.

Click here for the government’s guide on ow to drive on a smart motorway.

 38 deaths in 5 years

In January SHP reported that, for the first time, the total number of deaths on smart motorways has been reported, with figures showing thirty-eight deaths between 2014 and 2019.

The government told the BBC’s Panorama programme that thirty-eight people have been killed on smart motorways since they were introduced in the UK in 2014.

They have faced heavy criticism because a lack of hard shoulder means motorists can be trapped in a ‘live’ lane amongst speeding traffic in the event of a breakdown.

The figures showed that in the five years before the road was converted into a smart motorway there were just 72 near misses. In the five years after, there have been 1,485.

In response, a Highways England spokesperson said: “Any death on our roads is one too many, and our deepest sympathies remain with the family and friends of those who lost their lives.

“The Transport Secretary has asked the Department for Transport to carry out, at pace, an evidence stocktake to gather the facts about smart motorway safety. We are committed to safety and are supporting the Department in its work on this.”

Smart motorways are ‘inherently unsafe and dangerous and should be abandoned’

Claire Mercer lost her husband in an accident on the M1, after the 16-mile stretch was converted into a smart motorway.

An inquest has heard that the deaths could have been avoided, if there had been a hard shoulder.

Coroner David Urpeth recorded a verdict of unlawful killing and added that he would be writing to Highways England and the transport secretary asking for a review.

He added that smart motorways without a hard shoulder carry “an ongoing risk of future deaths”.

Following the developments, South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings has written to the government to say that smart motorways are ‘inherently unsafe and dangerous and should be abandoned’.

In his open letter to Grant Shapps, the Secretary of State for Transport, Dr Billings said: “I believe smart motorways of this kind – there what would be a hard shoulder is a live lane with occasional refuges – are inherently unsafe and dangerous and should be abandoned.

“The relevant test for us is whether someone who breaks down on this stretch of the motorway, where there is no hard shoulder, would have had a better chance of escaping death or injury had there still been a hard shoulder – and the coroner’s verdict makes it clear that the answer to that question is – yes.”

Highways England said it was “addressing many of the points raised”.

Highways England had previously claimed that smart motorways have improved the safety of British motorways. The new roads use technology as a way of minimising congestion and easing the flow of traffic.

The organisation said that a risk assessment of the design for the latest generation of smart motorways estimated an 18% reduction in risk, compared to a conventional motorway.

Mike Wilson, Chief Highway Engineer, also asserted that there was evidence proving that smart motorways were improving safety as ‘the first nine of the latest generation of smart motorways have reduced casualty rates by more than 25%’.

Despite their claims to increased safety, their own report highlights that drivers are three-times more likely to break down in a live lane when the hard shoulder has been removed.

In the 10 months after the modification of a 16-mile stretch of the M1, four people were killed after being hit by oncoming traffic, as there was no hard shoulder to protect them. Jason Mercer was one of the recent victims as he, and another driver Alexandru Murgeanu, were hit by a lorry after thier car broke down in the new ‘live lane’.

Following the introduction of the live lane, Highways England implemented the ‘Red X’, a signal for drivers to switch lanes if an immobilised vehicle appeared. However, on the day that Mercer and Mergeanu were caught stranded, no ‘Red X’ warning appeared according to reports.

Prior to this incident, a 62-year-old woman and an 83-year-old man were also killed in smart motorway-related incidents. The cause of all four deaths was their failure to reach an Emergency Relief Area on the 16-mile Northbound stretch of the M1 after the hard shoulder was scrapped.

How safe are smart motorways?

Jason Mercer’s wife Claire is suing Highways England for corporate manslaughter, claiming the organisation failed to provide sufficient protection. A report found that on average it takes CCTV operators twenty minutes to spot stranded vehicles before closing the lane. “These tragic deaths show the systems have failed repeatedly,” said Claire.

Edmund King, President of the AA, was shocked at the findings. “It shows just how dangerous it can be breaking down in a live lane. Ultimately, until you are found by the camera you are a sitting duck. Expecting someone to wait in a dangerous and life-threatening position for 20 minutes is simply inexcusable.”

In 2018, Highways England admitted that the speed limits they imposed don’t necessarily reflect real-time traffic conditions. If congestion doesn’t build up as expected, motorists are sometimes told to drive 30 mph below the normal speed limit despite roads being clear.

Highways England plan to nearly double the smart motorway network from 416 to 788 miles by 2025. Claire Mercer argued that the government and the motorway company were in ‘collective madness’ as they failed to recognise the tragedy caused by smart motorways.

MP Tracey Crouch called for the roll-out of smart motorways to be halted amid concerns that the replacement of the hard shoulder posed safety concerns for drivers and breakdown services.

police motorwayThe Police also disagree with the system as the force has complained that there is nowhere to pull over reckless drivers. With no hard shoulder, officers are forced to drive for ‘miles and miles’ before apprehending culprits. Emergency services also state that the time taken to get to the scene of an accident is now considerably longer as they have to battle through stationary traffic when they would, in the past, have been able to use the hard shoulder.

Sally Jacobs lost her husband on a section of smart motorway when he was crushed getting out of his car. She told the BBC that it took the emergency services one-hour to get to the scene because there was no hard-shoulder to enable them access the scene quickly.

PC Stuart King, Motorway Police, said that “[they] have to force [their] way through the small gap between lorries and cars whereas before [they] would use the hard-shoulder to get there much quicker, no we’re” in the even of an accident.

In 2016, a worker was been fatally injured on the M1 smart motorway site in Northamptonshire.

Work that involves driving is reported to be high risk. The transport and storage industry is one of the most high-risk industries in the UK. Inevitably, workers that drive for a living are at higher risk of being involved in a road accident and moving vehicles if one of the biggest hazards related to work fatalities.

The safety of smart motorways has been disputed by many. Highways England continues to defend the new road system, claiming it tackles the issues of congestion and improves the safety of motorists. However, given the alarming number of smart-motorway incidents in the past year, should something change?

Highways England – smart motorways advice

Recovery operators

  • Vehicle recovery operators are never expected to work in a live lane, and their safety – and the safety of all road users – is our top priority.
  • Measures should be in place to ensure this is the case (e.g. emergency traffic management, reduced speed limits and Traffic Officer support) before recovery operators attend a broken-down motorist. Vehicle recovery operators can also get to broken down motorists in emergency areas on smart motorways which are safer than working on a hard shoulder as they are set back from the live carriageway.
  • Smart motorways have safety mitigations that are not present on other types of high-speed road, for example variable speed limits and Red X, and we have also worked closely with the recovery industry to develop guidance on safe recovery. This involved carrying out a successful joint exercise to test different recovery scenarios.

Stopped vehicle detection

  • Incident detection is already in place on all smart motorways.
  • Stopped vehicle detection, operational on the M25 and in construction on the M3, uses scanning radar to identify stopped vehicles, set signs and alert our control rooms. It is effective in all weathers and at all levels of traffic.
  • However, this is just one of the systems in place on smart motorways, including CCTV, incident detection, SVD and emergency areas – to keep drivers safe. The stopped vehicle detection system employed to date uses radar technology (radio waves) to detect stationary vehicles on motorways.

Red X signals

  • It has always been an offence to ignore a red X.
  • Police are now able to use cameras as part of the enforcement of red X.

Driving for Better Safety - Free eBook download

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Driver Safety eBook cover

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Steven Nagle
Steven Nagle
2 years ago

They’re no safer….. and certainly no smarter…. and any good they do is nullified by companies pushing drivers to work harder, be on time, longer hours, extra stress, failing to manage risk in the process. To consider them safe is to court insanity. I’ve seen first hand hundreds of times how many lunatics drive along that stretch at 80-100mph and frankly it’s getting worse, not better.

Alan James
Alan James
2 years ago

I was travelling recently on the “smart” section of the M5 south of the M42. A rigid body HCV had experienced a blow-out and luckily had managed to reach one of the refuge lay-bys. All lanes were open and travelling at 70mph or more. By the time I got there a specialist recovery vehicle had arrived to change the HCV’s wheel. However, the lay-by was not long enough to allow both vehicles to park in it easily and the back end of the recovery vehicle was jutting out about a metre or more into the ‘slow’ lane. Traffic was having… Read more »

Jeff Russell
Jeff Russell
2 years ago

I have recently had a near miss when a car broke down in a ‘Smart’ section of the on the M25. No warnings were given and the view ahead was blocked by a large goods vehicle. I would not want to be in a broken down car on a busy motorway waiting for someone to spot me on their CCTV system. Smart they are not, and definitely not safe as a normal motorway. They are just a cheaper way of getting an extra running lane on a motorway.

Phil J
Phil J
2 years ago

Don’t know why they don’t stick to the smart motorways that have a hard shoulder which is only live running when there’s heavy traffic. The heavy traffic leads to opening up of the hard shoulder for use AND ties in with a reduced speed limit, which should reduce the risk for anyone having to stop on the hard shoulder even if it’s running live. There are parts of the M62 like that. Makes more sense than 4 open lanes, where one is only closed when the CCTV operator (who has probably got too many cameras to monitor) finally spots an… Read more »

Safetylady
Safetylady
2 years ago

Just read all the Gov UK / Highways England advice.
Quite complicated, there are three types for a start, and seems to assume all drivers’ education will magically be upgraded too, AND the key point is missing: – How does a driver even know they are on a ‘smart’ motorway?
After some miles, and with up to date driver awareness it may become apparent, with the various clues, but no actual obvious distinction at the start of these sections, such as “You are now driving on a SMART motorway. Pay attention to the overhead lane symbols”.
Just not good enough.

Phil
Phil
1 year ago

If Smart Motorways are unsafe the argument is 70mph dual carriageways without hard shoulders are unsafe. So we should reduce the A2, A6, A1 etc. To lower speed or build emergency lay-bys. You can’t have it both ways.

John
John
1 year ago
Reply to  Phil

The A34 has had and continues to have numerous crashes, often fatal when trucks hit stationary queuing traffic or broken down vehicles. Car drivers are bad enough, but nose to tail on the limiter (56 MPH) truckers without forward vision beyond the next trucks back doors are lethal, even when they have better forward vision some drivers still miss the visual clues.

Gary Hewitt
Gary Hewitt
9 months ago
Reply to  Phil

I’d certainly like to see emergency refuge areas provided on our major A roads, Phil, but very few of those roads warrant comparison to a motorway, and that’s why motorway regulations have always been different. Most A roads have much more frequent junctions and places to exit the carriageway than motorways, plus often an accessible soft verge too. I’d never argue against improved safety features for fast A roads but the shortcomings of those roads shouldn’t be used to allow Smart Motorways to continue in their current, lethal form.

Last edited 9 months ago by Gary Hewitt
Kalisz
Kalisz
1 year ago

See video above

I was on M6 driving a 44-ton articulated truck
I kept a long distance from the other lorry
Small car broke down on tha hard shoulder… moment, there was no hard shhoulder.
I had less than a second to make decision who to kill…

Jon swift
Jon swift
11 months ago

An interesting article, but curious. It cites that more than 50% of the 2010 drivers interviewed don’t know the rules for Smart motorways, but most of the rules quoted apply to “motorways”. As Green Flag’s Damon Jowett is quoted in the news report, this is more of a concern about a broader lack of driver awareness. The report then quotes 38 deaths in 5 years but goes on to compare near-miss events in the same and preceding 5 years but no comparison of deaths in the same preceding period. Whist any death or injury is tragic it would be valuable… Read more »

John
John
11 months ago

Breaking down is dangerous in a car/van/truck/bus anywhere (I’ve worked as a recovery driver and as Ambulance crew in the past) DUMBED motorways take this to a whole new more dangerous level. Having suffered a rear wheel puncture on a motorcycle on one I count myself as lucky to have survived the mile plus riding at reduced speed to reach the next ‘safe’ (not very) area, I was fortunate to have a trucker who guarded my tail so I didn’t get rammed. Then came the 2 hour wait for the CCTV operators to spot me and get me recovered off… Read more »

Kevin Short
Kevin Short
9 months ago

If you are unfortunate enough to come to a standstill on a motorway with traffic travelling in excess of 70mph, you should pull over to the hard shoulder as soon as practicable if able to do so. leave a warning sign and turn on hazard lights. Remove yourself from the vehicle and stand well clear preferably behind a barrier if available. You can use the emergency phone or mobile to alert the rescue services and police. The rescue services will attend to you and gain access to you via the hard shoulder, particularly important if you require emergency medical or… Read more »

Cathy Cave
Cathy Cave
9 months ago

I’ve always thought they were unsafe exactly for the reasons others have given. I would dread breaking down on a smart motorway especially if I had young children or those who need additional assistance in my car.

Lee
Lee
9 months ago

Those behind the introduction of smart motorways should have been far better prepared for the inevitable fallout to deaths arising from breaking down in a live lane. It seems as if there has been an unshakeable belief in the technology to deliver safe motorways.

Phil
Phil
9 months ago

Can someone explain… the A2 is a 3 lane/4 lane 70mph dual carriageway with no hard shoulder, the A1 similar as is the A6 etc. If M class roads should have a hard shoulder then surely the same applies to these or do we say any dual carriageway without a hard shoulder should be restricted to…say 50 mph? Breaking down on the A1 etc.surely has the same risks as a Smart Motorway or even more as these roads do not have CCTV or matrix signs? as for those who say they do not know what a red X means, does… Read more »

Gary Hewitt
Gary Hewitt
9 months ago
Reply to  Phil

I’d certainly like to see emergency refuge areas provided on our major A roads, Phil, but very few of those roads warrant comparison to a motorway, and that’s why motorway regulations have always been different. Most A roads have much more frequent junctions and places to exit the carriageway than motorways, plus often an accessible soft verge too. I’d never argue against improved safety features for fast A roads but the shortcomings of those roads shouldn’t be used to allow Smart Motorways to continue in their current, lethal form.

Gary Hewitt
Gary Hewitt
9 months ago

I was so pleased to hear the coroner at Monday’s inquest into 2 recent Smart Motorway deaths state what the vast majority of British motorists have known for years – Smart Motorways, in their current form, are not safe. No amount of tinkering, such as the minor detail changes and “considered” alterations included in Grant Shapps whitewash of a review, will rectify that fact. There really is no substitute for a continuous, dedicated and permanent hard shoulder, our lifeline, allowing drivers to get out of the path on motorway-speed traffic following behind. Sure, there are plenty of other innovations within… Read more »

Harry
Harry
9 months ago

I couldn’t agree more with the many comments expressing very serious concerns about these ‘smart’ motorways. It is sheer negligence for the government to ignore the evidence and to keep these motorways. To EXPAND them is utterly grotesque. I could almost think certain government ministers might have financial ties to the smart motorway contractors. But surely that would never happen….. PPE contract anyone?

pete robinson
pete robinson
9 months ago

my view
is it the motorways or the people who use them who are at fault.
people are driving at different speeds to slow or too fast. does this increase the risk of more accidents than everyone driving at a set speed.
as for smart, they is nothing smart about removing the hard shoulder, although that said i have seen people crashed into, on these before smart motorways.

Last edited 9 months ago by pete robinson
Brian Hele
Brian Hele
4 days ago

Thank you for providing this data. It’s encouraging to hear that there are attorneys prepared to battle for their clients. I, too, have a family member who has been harmed by a motorcycle accident attorney.