Transport Secretary Grant Shapps builds on 2020 action plan and promises that technology to recognise stopped vehicles will be in place before any new stretch of ALR motorway is opened

The Department for Transport (DfT) has announced it is speeding up measures to improve safety on controversial stretches of smart motorways, following last year’s safety action plan.

The measures include a promise by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps that every new stretch of all lane running (ALR) motorway will have technology in place that can spot stopped or broken-down vehicles.

Stationary vehicles are currently detected through CCTV cameras and a system called MIDAS, which picks up slowing traffic after an incident. Radar technology called stationary vehicle detection is used on some ALR motorways to pick up stranded vehicles.

Existing ALR motorways will now have the technology fitted six months earlier than originally planned. A second type of smart motorway, the dynamic hard shoulder scheme, is already being withdrawn in favour of ALR motorways.

By the end of September 2022, Highways England says it will:

  • Install radar technology on all existing stretches of ALR motorway, six months earlier than planned
  • Upgrade special cameras 10 months earlier than planned, so that they can be used to spot and prosecute motorists ignoring ‘red X’ signs and illegally driving down closed lanes, putting themselves and others in danger
  • Install around 1,000 additional approach signs six months earlier than planned, alerting drivers to their nearest place to stop in an emergency.

The Highway Code is also to be updated with guidance on ALR motorways, due to be published this year ahead of schedule.

Highways England recently published its Smart Motorways Stocktake First Year Progress Report 2021. In it, it set out progress made against the action plan published in 2020 to boost safety through a £500m investment.

The report claims that ALR motorways are one of the safest types of road in the country, with drivers on a conventional motorway 33% more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than drivers on an ALR motorway.

This is despite concerns raised in 2019 when deaths on smart motorways reached their highest levels. DfT data reveals there were five deaths on motorways without a permanent hard shoulder in 2017, 11 deaths in 2018, and 15 deaths in 2019 – including nine specifically on ALR motorways, one less than in 2018.

The report blames those increased fatalities on dynamic hard shoulder motorways, which used a part-time hard shoulder. The 2020 action plan determined to abolish those types of smart motorways.

Mr Shapps says: “Despite the data showing that fatalities are less likely on ALR motorways than on conventional ones, this doesn’t mean all drivers necessarily feel safe on them.

“That is why I tasked Highways England last year with delivering an action plan to raise the bar on safety measures even higher. This progress report shows the extensive work already carried out, but we want to do more.

“Alongside the raft of measures already undertaken, today I am announcing that all new ALR motorways will open with stopped vehicle detection technology in place, as well as a programme to speed up the roll-out of the technology on previously built stretches of ALR motorways to next year. This will help us further reduce the risk of accidents on the country’s roads.

“So called smart motorways started to be built in 2001 and I am determined to ensure that technology and exacting standards are in place.”

RHA has welcomed the safety pledge by government, but has urged ministers to go further.

That includes a call to shorten gaps between refuge areas, and better education for road users.

“This is a positive move from the government, and we welcome the programme of improvements it has promised,” says RHA Chief Executive Richard Burnett.

“Smart motorways increase journey efficiency but more needs to be done to help people understand how they work and boost their confidence in using them to improve safety.”

Mr Burnett suggests a driver CPC module dedicated to using smart motorways should be mandated for commercial vehicle drivers. He welcomes the commitment to updating the Highway Code with new guidance on using high speed roads, and urges a comprehensive campaign to increase awareness. “We will support the government to promote smart motorway safety across our sector,” he adds.