The rollout of smart motorways is to be halted as the Government launches a review into their safety.
Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, will pause the construction of any new all-lane-running routes, preventing some of England’s busiest motorways from being stripped of the hard shoulder.
The move follows a scathing report from the Commons Transport Select Committee which found there was not enough safety and economic data available to justify continuing with the controversial transformation of the country’s motorway network.
Ministers will only now decide whether or not to proceed with the schemes after five years of safety data from 112 miles of existing smart motorways has been collected and analysed. The statistics are not likely to be available until Spring 2024.
The announcement comes more than two years after The Telegraph uncovered numerous examples of motorists and passengers having been killed or seriously injured after becoming stranded in live lanes before being hit from behind by high speed traffic.
Four coroners have raised concerns that scrapping the hard shoulder could culminate in more deaths.
As part of the Government’s response to the committee’s report, an extra 150 emergency refuge areas will be fitted alongside the “best-in-class” technology meant to spot stationary cars.
An extra £390 million will fund the safety upgrades, bringing the total number of emergency refuge areas to 500 by 2025, meaning those safety zones should be no more than three-quarters of a mile apart.
But while planned works for 11 new sections of all-lane-running motorways – including on the M3, M6, M40, M25 and M4 – have now been paused, six partially completed projects will be finished, including on the M1, M27, M4, M56 and two swathes of the M6.
Ministers will also make the Office of Rail and Road, the transport watchdog, responsible for assessing how to reduce live lane breakdowns and improve emergency response times to reach casualties or stranded motorists.
‘Smart motorways should be banned’
Claire Mercer, 45, whose husband died on the M1 when his car became stranded on a live lane, said it was “staggering and irresponsible” that Mr Shapps was completing some schemes despite “admitting” more safety data was needed.
“I’m pleased about the pause of the rollout because it will allow me to get my legal challenge to prove smart motorways should be banned,” Mrs Mercer, who set up Smart Motorways Kill with other relatives of those who died, said from her home in Rotherham.
“The Government’s response and the committee’s report are a series of compromises which kick the ball into the long grass.
“Those who have lost loved ones, and the wider general British public will not give up about the need to have a hard shoulder.”
Sir Mike Penning MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Roadside Rescue & Recovery – who is also a former roads minister – said it was “illogical” to pause some but continue with other types of smart motorways.
“Either we are happy that ‘all lane running’ is safe or we’re not. If there is any reasonable doubt, which there clearly is as they wouldn’t be pausing the roll out of new sections if there wasn’t, then we should stop using them,” he said.
Edmund King, president of the AA, welcomed the Government’s “positive and pragmatic” decision to make refuges closer together and to review the safest but more costly controlled motorways with hard shoulders, where gantries also control speed limits and close lanes.
He said: “The AA’s view remains that controlled motorways with a hard shoulder are the safest option and we are pleased that the business case for these will be examined.”
Shapps: Improve existing schemes first
Mr Shapps said: “While our initial data shows that smart motorways are among the safest roads in the UK, it’s crucial that we go further to ensure people feel safer using them.
“Pausing schemes yet to start construction and making multimillion-pound improvements to existing schemes will give drivers confidence and provide the data we need to inform our next steps.”
However, he rejected the committee’s finding that his decision in 2020 to roll out all-lane running, including converting dynamic hard shoulder motorways – where the inside lane is opened and closed to traffic – was “premature”.
Huw Merriman, who chairs the committee, said he was delighted ministers had accepted MPs’ recommendations over “conflicting and patchy” safety data that needed to be updated.