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Expansion of smart motorway network suspended

Britain’s network of smart motorways is under urgent review after a massive rise in near-misses and accidents. First introduced in 2006, smart motorways are designed to bring extra capacity and improve journey reliability on some of the most congested roads. Motorways are made ‘smart’ by converting the hard shoulder into an extra lane and using electronic signs on the overhead gantries to control variable speed limits and warn drivers of hazards ahead. The scheme has been planned to be rolled out to 200 miles of congested motorways across the UK.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps has suspended the opening of new smart motorways until a hard shoulder removal safety review is complete, and warned smart motorways could be scrapped altogether if they are considered to be more dangerous than conventional roads.

Shapps told the BBC:

“We absolutely have to have these as safe or safer as regular motorways or we shouldn’t have them at all.”

Since the government announced their review an investigation by the BBC Panorama programme found that there have been 38 deaths on stretches of smart motorways in the last five years, it also revealed that one of the electronic warning signs that are meant to guide drivers was out of action for 336 days.

Safety organisations take particular issue with the difference between the distance to laybys where stranded cars can pull in during trials compared to the smart motorways that have been built by Highways England.

During testing the motorways in question featured laybys approximately every 400m’s (double-check) apart but when the smart motorway initiative was approved and rolled out on a wider scale this gap increased to 1 mile. It’s this discrepancy in particular, presumably introduced for cost-saving purposes, that many expert observers feel has endangered lives and rendered the scheme unsustainable.

The AA, which has led calls to scrap or alter smart motorways, issued a poll showing just 9% of drivers felt relaxed or safe when using them. Edmund King, the AA president, said the current system was not fit for purpose.

King said:

“The real scandal is the avoidable deaths – people who have broken down in a live lane and been unable to move until a vehicle has ploughed into the back of them.”

Research by the AA suggests it takes an average of 17 minutes for highway authorities to spot a stopped vehicle, and then another 17 minutes for emergency vehicles to reach the scene.

The former government minister who approved the roll-out of smart motorways in 2010, Sir Mike Penning told Panorama that smart motorways are endangering people’s lives.

“There are people that are being killed and seriously injured on these roads, and it should never have.”

Penning led the all-party parliamentary group for roadside rescue and recovery and published a report that accused Highways England of “a shocking degree of carelessness” in implementing the motorway system. They called for the conversion of motorways to be suspended until their safety is proven.

The review is welcomed by motorists with after many already voicing their concerns. A petition started by a lorry driver calling for smart motorways to be scrapped has already gained 271,436 signatures.

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