Written evidence submitted by Transport Greater Manchester on behalf of ten Greater Manchester Local Highway Authorities (RSM0084)

The roll-out and safety of smart motorways

Smart motorways have existed in some form in England since 2002. They were introduced as a technology-driven approach to deal with congestion through increasing capacity on motorways and controlling the flow and speed of traffic. Features of smart motorways include driver information displays provided on over-head gantries and technological safety features that can detect slow moving and stationary traffic.

Since 2014 the most common type of smart motorway has been All Lane Running (ALR), where former hard shoulders are permanently converted into running lanes and emergency refuge areas are available for motorists to stop in if there is an emergency (on smart motorways built since 2020 these are spaced at a maximum distance of 1 mile apart).

Highways England oversees the management of smart motorways which, in 2018, covered around 7% of the Strategic Road Network but carried 16% of its annual traffic

There have been concerns about the safety of ALR since its inception, as reflected in numerous public opinion surveys. In 2016, the Transport Committee concluded that it did not support the nationwide rollout of ALR on the basis that the safety risks associated with it had not been fully addressed. These concerns have been emphasised over the past 18 months with a number of fatalities on smart motorways and criticisms about their safety by coroners investigating those deaths. There is also a perception that motorists lack confidence driving on smart motorways.

In March 2020, the Department for Transport published an in-depth evidence stocktake of smart motorway safety. This concluded that “in most ways, smart motorways are as safe as, or safer than, conventional motorways”, although it recognised that the risk of breaking down in a live lane is significantly increased. The Department set out an 18-point action plan to enhance the safety of smart motorways, including rolling out stopped vehicle detection systems to all stretches of smart motorway by 2023 (since brought forward to 2022), converting all sections of dynamic hard shoulder smart motorway to ALR by 2025 and a £5 million publicity campaign to increase awareness and understanding of smart motorways.

 

Our call for evidence

We would welcome written evidence on the safety of smart motorways and public confidence in their use as well as their impact upon congestion. We are particularly interested in views on:

• the benefits of smart motorways, for instance to reduce congestion on busy sections of motorway, and how necessary they are;

More work should be done to promote the reasons for speed enforcement on Smart Motorways including for traffic management and capacity purposes.  Additionally, the wider benefits of the existing smart motorways should be publicised.  Speed reductions should however be used sparingly and the reasons for them given on the SRN VMS as otherwise drivers become frustrated with apparently arbitrary limits when there is no obvious reason for the change.

It is a concern that the collision rate for smart motorways on congested stretches is no better than the wider network and is in some cases worse when the slower speeds should point to reduced collision levels. From the Highways England report, looking at the first nine ALR (All Lane Running) schemes before and after their introduction, total live lane collisions have increased from an average of three per year before the ALR was introduced to an average of 19 per year after the motorway had been converted to ALR. While these numbers are admittedly small, they show an enormous increase in risk. To go from three collisions a year to 19 and from no fatalities to 2.8 on just the nine ALR stretches must be considered significant.

As with any highway works, the Smart Motorway programme should consider and seek to mitigate any adverse impacts on the local area or local highways. For example, increased congestion and poor air quality.

 

• the safety of smart motorways, the adequacy of safety measures in place and how safety could be improved;

A report published by the Department for Transport in 2020[1] identified that places to stop in an emergency are currently spaced between 0.3 miles and 1.6 miles. A recommendation within the report included the commitment to reducing the maximum to 1 mile apart and where feasible to provide them every ¾ of a mile apart. This is still too far apart and if a person is unable to walk any significant distance - for example if they are disabled, mobility impaired or travelling with young children - walking these distances is dangerous and not feasible.

The emergency refuges are designed such that whilst a vehicle may enter them, it is difficult to safely get out again.  There is no acceleration lane and re-joining a fast flowing motorway at low speed is bound to be dangerous.

On many Smart Motorways barriers have been erected next to the live nearside lane even where there appears to be no obvious hazard on the verge.  This both stops vehicles pulling onto the verge and effectively imprisons anyone exiting a vehicle who isn’t capable of clambering over a barrier on the live lane, including the elderly, young children and anyone disabled. 

The DfT report also recommended additional emergency areas on the M25. However there was no commitment to the national programme, only consideration to install more Emergency Stopping Areas (ESA) within existing Smart Motorways. We believe that a national retro-fitting programme is essential.

Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) must be rolled out to Smart Motorways as a priority.

The Highways England report also doesn’t address the alarming rise in near-miss incidents that were found after the change to ALR on sections of the M25. It is essential that monitoring should collate near-miss reports so that remedial action can be taken before fatalities and serious injuries occur.

 

• whether All Lane Running is the most suitable type of smart motorway to roll out or if there are better alternatives;

Demand Management or road widening where possible could be considered as better alternatives

The phased roll-out of Smart Motorway features should also be considered. For example, variable speed limits could be implemented first, with ALR or Dynamic Hard Shoulders (DHS) introduced subsequentially as motorists become used to the new environment.

 

• public confidence in using smart motorways and how this could be improved; • the impact of smart motorways on the usage and safety of other roads in the strategic road network;

Anecdotally hard shoulder violations on conventional motorways close to congested junctions appears to be a worsening problem; however, it is not clear whether this is linked to the roll out of Smart Motorways and drivers being more used to DHS.

We would recommend ending new DHS schemes and, on existing schemes, reverting to permanent hard shoulder or ALR if adequate ESA and SVD can be achieved

The promotion of and communications around Smart Motorways, ALR and DHS has been limited, leading to inconsistent understanding and use of signage in place amongst road users.  An example of individuals understanding of a red X is that “this lane will close at some point ahead with the use of temporary traffic management.” There is an expectation that the closure is ahead and not immediate.

 

• the effectiveness of Highways England’s delivery of the smart motorways programme, the impact of construction works, and the costs of implementation.

In some cases Smart Motorways seem to be the default or only choice.  In urban areas where space is at a premium this may be sensible but not in rural areas.  For example on the M62 widening to Leeds across the moors it would seem illogical to introduce a Smart Motorway when conventional widening may in fact be quicker and cheaper to build. 

The timing and sequencing of works should be coordinated with works on local highways to avoid exacerbating disruption for road users and local people.

 

This response has been provided by Transport for Greater Manchester on behalf of the 10 Greater Manchester Highway Authorities, Bolton, Bury, Manchester, Rochdale, Oldham, Salford, Stockport, Tameside, Trafford, Wigan.

Transport for Greater Manchester is the body responsible for transport and travel matters across the Greater Manchester region.

 

April 2021

Endnotes


[1] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/936811/smart-motorway-safety-evidence-stocktake-and-action-plan.pdf