More work needed to convince drivers over safety of smart motorways – minister

More work is needed to convince drivers that England’s smart motorways are safe, the roads minister has admitted.

Baroness Vere told MPs there is a “gap” between the position of the Department for Transport and Highways England – which claim the roads are at least as safe as conventional motorways – and public perception.

Giving evidence to the Commons’ Transport Select Committee, she said: “There is a gap. We have been working very hard to close it.

“I will say that we probably need to work a little harder on getting advocates and presenting the evidence.”

There are concerns about the safety of all lane running (ALR) smart motorways – which involve the hard shoulder being converted into a running lane – due to several fatal accidents involving stationary vehicles being hit from behind.

Baroness Vere told the committee it can be “very difficult” to “bring the public with us”, because road safety measures are becoming based on “data and digitisation” rather than physical interventions such as the central reservation.

The minister said she and Highways England will be “very focused on” explaining that smart motorways are a “system of systems”.

This will include promoting the Motorway Incident Detection and Automatic Signalling (Midas) system, which involves sensors in the road detecting the movement of vehicles.

“There are many systems in there that make you safer,” Baroness Vere said. “You’ve got eyes in the sky, you’ve got eyes in the ground with the Midas system.

“You can see what is going on. You cannot do that on conventional motorways, it doesn’t happen.

“And that’s the message that we absolutely need to get out there.”

RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said Baroness Vere was “correct to say that all lane running schemes are perceived as having safety issues”, as its own research indicated that three out of four drivers believe removing the hard shoulder compromises safety in the event of a breakdown.

He questioned whether additional safety features will “ever make drivers warm” to ALR roads.

Campaigners have called for hard shoulders to be reinstated on all smart motorways, but Baroness Vere claimed that would lead to 25 deaths a year due to drivers switching to “less safe” public roads.

She said: “We’ve done some high level analysis. If you assume 25% of traffic is pushed off the road due to the 25% reduction in capacity, we reckon it would be 25 fatalities a year, and 224 serious casualties.”

M3 smart motorway
An emergency refuge area on the M3 smart motorway near Camberley in Surrey (PA)

“You could expect up to six people to die” if just the 23-mile stretch of the M1 between Milton Keynes and Nottingham had its hard shoulder reinstated, she explained.

The minister added that carrying out the work on all smart motorways would cost an estimated £2.85 billion, and she is “not convinced” that should happen.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the committee in February that “the equivalent land of 700 Wembley Stadium football pitches” would be required to add hard shoulders to all smart motorways.

Around 350 miles of motorway in England have no permanent hard shoulder.

In April, Highways England described smart motorways as “the safest roads in the country”, stating the number of fatalities per distance driven was a third higher on conventional motorways than ALR motorways.

It said 15 people were killed on motorways without a permanent hard shoulder in 2019, up from 11 in 2018.

Highways England has pledged to complete the retrofitting of stopped vehicle detection (SVD) technology – which detects broken-down vehicles – across smart motorways without a hard shoulder by September next year.

On Wednesday, its acting chief executive, Nick Harris, admitted the organisation gave “the wrong impression” when it informed the committee in May 2016 that SVD would be “part of the standard rollout going forward” even though it did not happen for another two years.