RAC urges ministers to scrap all smart motorways over poor safety record

Smart motorway
Smart motorway

The RAC is calling on ministers to scrap smart motorways amid concerns over their safety and reinstate hard shoulders.

A year ago Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister cancelled their planned expansion around the country.

More than 50 deaths have been linked to the road scheme by campaigners warning about the safety record.

All-lane-running (ALR) smart motorways have no hard shoulder, with the existing safety lane converted into an extra running lane to add traffic capacity.

The system was introduced as a cheaper alternative to building more lanes and widening existing motorways, with a section of the M25 opened as the country’s first smart motorway in 2014.

Simon Williams, RAC head of policy, said: “It’s incredible to think that a decade has gone by since the first all-lane-running stretch of smart motorway opened on the M25 in Hertfordshire, and that it’s a year to the day since the Prime Minister cancelled all 14 future schemes, citing financial pressures and a lack of public confidence in them.

“While heralded as a cost-effective way of increasing capacity on some of our busier roads, a colossal amount of public money has since gone into trying to make them safer.

“For instance, by installing radar-based technology to detect stricken vehicles more quickly, plus the creation of additional emergency refuge areas.”

Convert to ‘dynamic’ ones

Mr Williams called on the Government to either convert existing ALR smart motorways into “dynamic” ones, where the hard shoulder is only opened to traffic during busy periods, or to reintroduce a permanent hard shoulder.

Work on new smart motorways was halted in 2023 by Mr Sunak after the policy was linked to more than 50 deaths.

Plans to convert stretches of the M1, M6 and M25 were shelved, saving taxpayers an estimated £1 billion.

Officials insist that technology for detecting stopped vehicles, together with electronic signs for enforcing lane closures, mean smart motorways are safe enough.

A National Highways report from December 2023 found that they were three times more dangerous to break down on than conventional ones.

Iain Stewart MP, chairman of the Commons transport committee, said its members had expressed “deep concern” about National Highways’ vehicle detection technology.

“We were pleased that the Government accepted our view that no new smart motorways would be commissioned, and that National Highways would start work on the retrofit of refuge areas and improve the reliability of the technology,” he said.

Sarah Champion, the Rotherham MP and veteran anti-smart motorway campaigner, welcomed the RAC’s call.

‘Smart motorways are death traps’

“The Government needs to do the right thing and reinstate the hard shoulder to all existing smart motorways and all the schemes under construction,” she told The Telegraph.

“The Government knows smart motorways are death traps but rather than saving lives it is saving face and bowing to pressure from National Highways.

“How many deaths do there have to be before common sense prevails?”

RAC polling from 2023 found that seven in 10 drivers wanted the hard shoulder to be reinstated on existing ALR smart motorways, although the Government claimed doing so would be too disruptive and costly.

National Highways has said that it is pressing on with building 50 new laybys on stretches of smart motorway across south-east England.

The refuges are part of a pre-existing £900 million plan to make smart motorways safer by providing safe spaces for stricken cars to pull over into, away from traffic.

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “While smart motorways are statistically among the safest roads on our network, we recognise the need for the public to feel safe when driving and have cancelled plans for all new smart motorway schemes.”