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Smart Motorways - the facts

The recent BBC Panorama program found that the number of near misses on one section of the M25 where the hard shoulder had been removed increased 20-fold, and uncovered evidence of 38 fatalities on smart motorways in the last five years. So, what are the facts?

Are smart motorways safe?

Motorways in general are the safest type of road in the UK. In 2018, they carried 21 per cent of all traffic but accounted for just six per cent of fatalities and five per cent of all casualties.

Overall, between 2014 and 2018 there were 503 deaths on UK motorways. The Panorama investigation found that 38 of these were on smart motorways, amounting to seven per cent of fatalities while smart motorways now account for around 17 per cent of the motorway network. Also, it is worth considering that smart motorways are generally located at the busiest sections of motorway so therefore carry a higher proportion of traffic than the mileage percentage.

Highways England says that since opening, across nine ‘all lane running’ schemes the casualty rate has reduced by 28 per cent. And according to its assessment of the design for the latest generation of smart motorways, it estimates an 18 per cent reduction in risk compared to a conventional motorway.

However, those figures don’t cover existing “dynamic” hard shoulder motorways where the hard shoulder is only used as a live lane some of the time and which make up around 100 miles of smart motorway. The Government is poised to scrap further roll-out of these because of concerns over their safety.

Live lane breakdowns

Figures revealed by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Roadside Rescue and Recovery also show that breakdowns in live lanes on all lane running motorways occur nearly twice as frequently (38 per cent vs 20.43 per cent) as on normal motorways, increasing the risk of a collision.

When a breakdown is detected overhead signs warn approach drivers the lane is blocked but this requires a human operator or automated system to spot the breakdown, something the AA says can take up to 17 minutes.

The APPG warns that given the average response time to a live lane breakdown is a further 17 minutes and there is no hard shoulder, drivers on smart motorways are more exposed to the risk of collision than those on conventional motorways. Highways England argues that more than 100 people are killed or injured while stopped on the hard shoulder every year and smart motorways “eliminate this risk”.

Detection problems

Highways England’s broader estimates of safety improvements also rely on vehicle detection systems being installed and working properly, something exposed as problematic by both the Panorama investigation and the AA.

The APPG has pointed out that the stopped vehicle radar detection system which Highways England said would be rolled out to the whole network currently only covers 25 miles of the 400-mile network. Highways England’s own chief executive, Jim O’Sullivan, has admitted that, had this technology been more widely in place, lives may have been saved.

Data also shows that on roads where automated systems aren’t in operation it takes an average of 17 minutes for a stranded vehicle to be recovered.

The Panorama investigation also found evidence of one detection camera which had been out of service for almost a year.

Stopped vehicle detection systems are in operation on the M25 but have yet to be installed elsewhere

Distance between refuge areas

Those who want changes to the smart motorway roll-out also argue that the distance between emergency lay-bys needs to be reduced. They say that reducing the gaps between emergency refuge areas (ERA) would give drivers a better chance to get out of the live lane and avoiding a collision.

Original trials had ERAs spaced around 600 metres apart but later stretches of road have gaps of up to 2.5km. The APPG argues that given there are more live lane breakdowns on smart motorways, increasing the number of ERAs would reduce the number of drivers exposed to breaking down in a live lane.

The AA and RAC have also repeatedly called for less space between ERA, arguing that the current distances leave drivers at risk.

The RAC’s Nicholas Lyes said: “We have long said the distance between SOS areas was too big so we would welcome a commitment to install more to increase the chances of vehicles being able to reach one in the event of a breakdown.”

AA president Edmund King has also urged Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to reduce the risk of dangerous live lane breakdowns by agreeing to create more ERA.

So, what do Highways England say?

Highways England released the following statement to the media in relation to recent commentary about the safety performance of smart motorways:

Chief Highway Engineer Mike Wilson said:

Motorways in this country are among the very safest roads in the world. Highways England would never carry out a major improvement scheme without being confident that we would maintain or enhance this position.

Evidence indicates that smart motorways are helping to improve safety. The first nine of the latest generation of smart motorways have reduced casualty rates by more than 25 per cent.

Smart motorways are good for drivers, adding vital extra lanes to some of our busiest motorways and making journeys safer and more reliable. As with other roads, we monitor the safety performance of smart motorways and are rolling out enhancements to improve the road user experience.


Driving on a smart motorway is simple and intuitive, and no different from on other roads. The main things to remember are:

  • keep left unless overtaking
  • do not drive under a Red X
  • stick within the speed limit
  • know what to do if you break down.

We are also working closely with recovery operators to operate safely on smart motorways.

Smart motorways are designed with safety in mind, to be at least as safe as the conventional motorways they replace. Our evidence shows that they are reducing casualty rates:

  • a risk assessment of the design for the latest generation of smart motorways estimated an overall 18 per cent reduction in risk compared to a conventional motorway
  • the evidence indicates that, since opening, across nine ‘all lane running’ schemes the casualty rate has reduced by 28 per cent.
  • this figure is based on three years’ data from two smart motorway schemes on the M25 and one year of data from seven other schemes across the country.

The hard shoulder is not a safe place - more than a hundred people are killed or injured on the hard shoulder every year, and people stopping on them unnecessarily is an issue. Smart motorways effectively eliminate this risk.

Smart motorways have places to stop in an emergency, including emergency areas, hard shoulders on junction slip roads and motorway service areas. These are a maximum of 1.5 miles apart - we have committed to reducing this distance on new smart motorway schemes (beginning construction in 2020) to one mile apart.

Feedback from road users show a clear majority feel confident driving on a smart motorway, and that they are safer and improve journey times. The watchdog, Transport Focus, recently published the Strategic Roads User Survey for 2018/19 and reported that 94% of people feel safe on motorways.

There has been comment in some media outlets about smart motorways increasing risk by 216%. This is incorrect – smart motorways were predicted to reduce safety risk compared to conventional motorways and evidence has demonstrated this prediction to be correct:

  • the figure is an estimate made before the schemes were built and relates to one specific hazard relating to the risk associated with stopping in a live lane when there is little traffic.
  • this is one of over 140 hazards that exist on a motorway when driving. Others include driving too fast, driver fatigue and the risks associated with hard shoulders.
  • many of these hazards are reduced by the introduction of smart motorways; as we have always said the risk around stopping in a live lane increases, but this represents less than 5% of the overall risk of driving on a smart motorway.
  • this same analysis showed that overall there would be around an 18% reduction in risk – this has been shown in practice with a reduced casualty rate with completed schemes of 28%