By Miles Dilworth
Since the turn of the century, the cash-strapped Department for Transport has been searching for cost-effective ways to ease growing congestion.
In its eyes, the conversion of the hard shoulder into a live lane to provide extra road capacity at minimal cost is the panacea for jammed motorways.
And, following a successful pilot on the M42 in 2006, ministers could argue these ‘smart’ motorways would be safe, too.
Pointing to trial data that showed a drop in the accident rate from 5.2 a month to 1.5, then Labour transport secretary Ruth Kelly claimed ‘the safety fears that some people have haven’t materialised at all’.
The trial had been aided in part by sensors that triggered signs asking drivers to slow down in traffic, but, crucially, there were also emergency refuge areas every 500 metres. These allowed motorists to park safely if they broke down.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps admitted in February that ‘mistakes were made’ over smart motorways
So £150million was spent to create ‘dynamic hard shoulders’ on the M6, which could be opened and closed to ease congestion.
A review would also consider expanding the scheme to the M1, M25, M4 and M20 in future. But it didn’t take long for it to become clear that the opening and closing of the hard shoulder was wreaking havoc.
At least four coroners have raised questions over safety following fatal collisions, with one even asking prosecutors to consider corporate manslaughter charges against Highways England.
It has also been revealed that both South Yorkshire and Derbyshire Police warned road chiefs in 2013 that their plans to permanently scrap the hard shoulder on parts of the M1 would cause deaths. Nine motorists have been killed since the schemes went ahead, including Jason Mercer in June 2019. His widow is seeking a judicial review of the smart motorway network.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps admitted in February that ‘mistakes were made’ over smart motorways. But his department still plans to expand the network to 800 miles by 2025, up from just under 500.
The 68 miles of dynamic hard shoulder will be phased out and converted into all-lane running. The spacing between refuge areas will be reduced and the rollout of vehicle detection technology will be accelerated.
The Government says fatal collisions are a third higher on conventional motorways by traffic volume and points to safety improvements gained by introducing sensors and cameras – in the words of transport minister Baroness Vere ‘eyes in the sky’.
But campaigners say this technology is patchy at best and does not justify the decision to axe so many emergency lanes.