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The Telegraph
The Telegraph
15 Apr 2023


Smart motorways
Smart motorways Credit: James Fraser/Rex

Smart motorways will no longer be built in the UK after Rishi Sunak admitted that the public has lost confidence in them.

Fourteen planned smart motorways have been axed after years of campaigning by the families of crash victims and accusations that ministers have “blood on their hands” for running a “deadly” 18-year experiment on Britain’s highways.

Roads that have already been completed will be allowed to remain but subjected to a safety refit to increase the number of emergency stopping places.

Plans to convert stretches of the M1, M6 and M25 to smart roads have been shelved, saving taxpayers an estimated £1 billion and reducing the risk of further crashes.

Smart motorways were first introduced in Britain in 2006 and replaced the hard shoulder on some roads with an extra lane of traffic in an attempt to reduce congestion.

Drivers who break down are instructed to remain in the road in their stationary vehicle while the lane is closed and speed reduced around them.

The experiment is thought to have contributed to the deaths of more than 50 motorists and has been beset by technological problems that mean up to 40 per cent of breakdowns are undetected.

Construction of new smart motorways was paused last year in an attempt to collect enough data to prove the roads were safe. But in his campaign to become Conservative Party leader months later, Mr Sunak pledged to stop them completely.

“All drivers deserve to have confidence in the roads they use to get around the country,” he said on Sunday. “That’s why last year I pledged to stop the building of all new smart motorways, and today I’m making good on that promise.

“Many people across the country rely on driving to get to work, to take their children to school and go about their daily lives, and I want them to be able to do so with full confidence that the roads they drive on are safe.”

Claire Mercer, who started the Smart Motorways Kill campaign group in 2019 after her husband Jason was killed on a section of the M1 with no hard shoulder, said the moratorium was “very good news”.

“The Telegraph has been there from the very beginning, and this huge step is partly down to its fantastic campaigning journalism,” she said.

In an article for The Telegraph, Sir Edmund King, the president of the AA, praised the decision but called for existing smart motorways to be scrapped along with any new projects.

“The scandal has left blood on the hands of those involved,” he said. “This was motorway widening on the cheap, and at least 40 people have paid the ultimate price. This is the scandal of smart motorways.”

Sir Edmund said the slow lanes of existing smart motorways could be converted back into hard shoulders with new markings, giving broken-down drivers a refuge from other traffic and preventing collisions.

Nicholas Lyes, the head of roads policy at the RAC, supported the call for hundreds of miles of remaining smart motorway to be scrapped, adding that Mr Sunak’s decision was “an admission that the Government no longer has faith in these types of roads – a conclusion that most drivers came to a long time ago”.

Meera Naran, whose eight-year-old son Dev was killed on a smart motorway near Birmingham in 2018, said she told Mr Sunak about her son’s death last year. “I spoke from my heart, and I truly believe he saw a mother's pain in losing her child,” she said. “I knew in my heart that he would make the right decision.”

Relatives of smart motorway victims protest in central London in 2021
Relatives of smart motorway victims protest in central London in 2021 Credit: Heathcliff O’Malley for The Telegraph

The Telegraph understands that the construction of two stretches of smart motorway at junctions six to eight of the M56 and 21a to 26 of the M6 will continue because the roads are already three-quarters complete.

Ministers are pressing ahead with a £900 million safety refit to increase the number of emergency stopping places on existing roads by 150.

While early versions of the scheme included “pull-ins” every few hundred metres, many are now more than 1.5 miles apart, giving drivers no choice but to wait in the middle of the road to be towed.

Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, said the rising cost of new roads was among the reasons ministers decided to cancel them.

“We want the public to know that this Government is listening to their concerns,” he said. “Today’s announcement means no new smart motorways will be built, recognising the lack of public confidence felt by drivers and the cost pressures due to inflation.”

The roads scrapped by Mr Sunak include four planned “all lane running” smart motorways, which have no hard shoulder, and seven stretches of road that were planned to have a “dynamic hard shoulder” that could also function as a lane of traffic. Three further pipeline sections on the M1 and M6 have also been mothballed.

Smart motorways were conceived as a low-cost way to expand the capacity of major roads at peak times by abolishing the hard shoulder and adding an extra lane of traffic.

The “smart” design meant any of the lanes could be closed if a car broke down, allowing traffic to flow around them at a lower speed.

It was thought the scheme would raise the average speed of traffic, and it was trialled on a heavily-congested stretch of the M42 in Birmingham at peak times.

The roads were endorsed by the austerity-era coalition government with Phillip Hammond, a future chancellor, rolling them out to other motorways in 2010 at a cost of £2 billion.

But the experiment has long been opposed by MPs and road safety campaigners, including both the RAC and AA.

Despite claims from ministers that the roads’ technology made them safe for drivers, a Telegraph analysis in 2019 found that four motorists had been killed on the same stretch of road in just 10 months.

Ms Mercer, who went on to become one of the most vocal campaigners against smart motorways, said she would sue Highways England for corporate manslaughter and declared that the project had “failed and should now be scrapped”.

In November 2021, the Commons transport committee warned that the planned rollout of smart motorways across the UK was “premature” and called for a moratorium.

But it was not until January last year that the rollout was halted by Grant Shapps, then the transport secretary, to allow officials to collect more safety data and determine whether the rollout should continue.

A plan was introduced to increase the safety of the roads with a radar-based “Stopped Vehicle Detection” technology, but The Telegraph later revealed that the scanners missed up to 40 per cent of stopped vehicles and that 80 per cent of alerts passed back to the control room were false alarms.

The Government said it would continue to offer motorists using existing stretches of smart motorway advice in an attempt to reduce accidents. But ministers are expected to face calls to reverse the rollout entirely and build new lanes on existing roads rather than converting existing hard shoulders.

On Sunday, a Downing Street source indicated that there were no plans to scrap all remaining smart motorways and that the proposed upgrades would improve their safety.