81% of drivers don’t feel safe on controversial smart motorways

Smart motorways have been on the national agenda for quite some time now. Though they’ve been at the centre of a fierce storm of controversy for much of their existence so far, like it or not they’re here to stay. That means almost everyone, from van drivers to fleet managers (or indeed anyone who’s ever searched for the best new van deals) will probably find themselves driving along one at some point.

And, it seems, the vast majority of drivers are deeply unhappy about that prospect. Just a few months ago, a study by a leading road safety organisation IAM Roadsmart (formerly the Institute of Advanced Motorists, or IAM) found that the overwhelming majority of its experienced drivers did not feel safe when driving on them.

What was the verdict on smart motorways?

Before we get into the results, let’s start with a quick recap of a smart motorway. Developed by government-owned agency Highways England, a smart motorway aims to increase capacity and reduce congestion compared to conventional motorways, by attempting to cut down on the stop-start traffic that can lead to long tailbacks.

They use a variety of measures to achieve this, including using variable speed limits to control traffic, and converting the hard shoulder into a running lane with ALR (all lane running) motorways. It’s this last one that has proven particularly controversial, and it’s been argued that the deaths of a not-insignificant number of motorists over the past few years could have been prevented if they’d had access to a hard shoulder, or another safe place to stop.

This viewpoint has been firmly reflected in the results of IAM Roadsmart’s latest survey. It questioned 4,500 of its members, and discovered that:

Somewhat damningly, 40% of drivers noticed no discernible improvement in their journey time. In fact, only 4% spotted a noticeable improvement, and 6% actually said they noticed increased delays.

Wigan is one of the English towns to have seen the most recent development on smart motorways within its borders, much to the reported dismay of its residents, including local MP Lisa Nandy. According to Ms Nandy: “It has been reported that since 2015 nearly 40 lives have been lost as a result of smart motorways. Even the former roads minister who introduced the programme has called for the rollout of the scheme to be halted.”

Smart motorways

What’s been the government response?

To put it bluntly, the government is forging on regardless, although it’s made a note of motorists’ concerns. According to Highways England, fatality rates on ALR motorways have been lower than on any other kind of UK road. It also states that ALR motorways have a fatal casualty lower than conventional motorways, at 0.12 per hundred million vehicle miles versus 0.16 per hundred million miles.

In an effort to boost public confidence in the initiative however, it’s ensuring that no further all-lane running motorways will be able to open without radar technology to spot stranded vehicles. The secretary of state for transport, Graham Shapps, has promised that stopped vehicle detection technology will be rolled out on all operational ALR roads by September 2022, six months ahead of schedule. Highways England will also be prioritising the upgrade of the nation’s smart motorway cameras so that it’s easier to detect cars driving in closed lanes. (This is called a red X violation, after the sign displayed on LED gantries to indicate such a closure, and it’s legally enforceable by police.)

These measures have done little to reassure campaigners, but for now it’s looking very much like smart motorways aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

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