Are smart motorways dangerous? New figures cast doubt on Government safety claims

The M3 is among stretches of smart motorway with no hard shoulderThe M3 is among stretches of smart motorway with no hard shoulder
The M3 is among stretches of smart motorway with no hard shoulder
Data shows rise in number of deaths on controversial roads

The controversy around the safety of smart motorways has been reignited after the latest figures released by Highways England.

The data revealed higher fatality rates on smart motorways than on conventional roads in recent years.

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Highways England and the UK Government have repeatedly insisted that mile-for-mile smart motorways, which operate without a hard shoulder, are safer than conventional motorways.

The stretch of M42 between junctions 3a and 7 uses dynamic hard shouldersThe stretch of M42 between junctions 3a and 7 uses dynamic hard shoulders
The stretch of M42 between junctions 3a and 7 uses dynamic hard shoulders

However, figures released as part of Highways England’s submission to the Commons transport committee show that in 2018 and 2019 all lane running (ALR) roads - the prefered type of smart motorway - had more deaths per hundred million miles than regular motorways with a hard shoulder.

Critics have accused the Government of massaging the figures to suit its smart motorway policy but the Department for Transport insists that data from individual years doesn’t paint an accurate picture.

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The five-year figures presented by Highways England show that in 2015, 2016 and 2017 live lane fatality rates were lower on ALR roads, with a fatality rate of between zero and 0.1 per hundred million vehicle miles, compared with figures of between 0.14 and 0.17 for conventional motorways.

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However, in 2018 fatalities on ALR were more than a third higher than conventional motorways at 0.19 per million miles compared with 0.14. The difference was lower in 2019 - 0.14 deaths on ALR compared with 0.13 on conventional roads - but deaths per million miles on smart motorways were still 7.7 per cent per cent higher than on regular motorways.

Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason died on a “smart” stretch of the M1 in 2019 and who has campaigned against the roll-out of smart motorways, said the figures showed “deceitful” behaviour.

She said: “They are purposefully using the five-year figure rather than the two most recent years. It is insulting they carry on defending them, but the most serious thing is they carry on killing people.”

Sally Jacobs, whose husband Derek was also killed on a stretch of smart motorway on the M1 in 2019 told the Mail: “I honestly think they've been massaging the figures all the way along.”

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And Labour transport spokesman Jim McMahon said people needed to be given more information. He told the Mail: “Campaigners and grieving families want to see common sense and action from ministers. Yet all we are seeing is more dither and delay and a refusal to give people the whole picture – putting even more lives at risk.”

The Department for Transport stood by its figures, arguing that longer-term averages were needed to balance “volatility” in single-year data.

A spokesman said: “The data shows fatalities are less likely on smart motorways than on conventional ones.

“This conclusion has been made by looking at the average trends over a number of years, which is essential to mitigating volatility in the casualty data.”

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The changes in fatalities have come as more stretches of smart motorway became operational. All lane running stretches of smart motorway have grown from 29 miles in 2015 to 141 in 2019, with another 141 miles of “controlled” motorway and 63 miles of dynamic hard shoulder roads - down from 67 in 2015.

Smart motorways are seen as a quicker and cheaper way to expand road capacity than traditional road expansion. Government bodies have insisted that removing the hard shoulder does not make the roads more dangerous but their roll-out was halted in January 2020 by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. He ordered an urgent review into their safety after BBC’s Panorama revealed 38 deaths had occurred on smart motorways in five years.

Panorama also uncovered figures showing near misses on one stretch of the M25 had risen 20-fold since the removal of the hard shoulder, jumping from 72 in the five years to 2014 to 1,485 in the five years after. And In February a coroner recommended that a charge of manslaughter should be considered against Highways England after a fatal crash on a smart motorway stretch of the M1 near Sheffield.

Subsequently, the Government has said that no new stretches of smart motorway will be allowed to open without the latest stopped vehicle detection systems in place and that the roll-out of these systems and improved signage on existing roads will also be accelerated.