Drivers have died on smart motorways due to slow technology roll out

Drivers have died on smart motorways due to slow technology roll out

Road chiefs admit drivers have been killed on smart motorways because of ‘delays in installing technology to spot broken-down vehicles

  • Dynamic smart motorways have been introduced on parts of nation’s network
  • Highways England said it increased capacity without widening the roads
  • Chief Executive Jim O’Sullivan claimed motorists did not understand the system
  • Campaigners claimed the new system presented a danger to motorists  

Drivers  have been killed on so-called smart motorways because of delays in installing technology to spot broken-down vehicles, the boss of Highways England said yesterday.

In 2016 road chiefs promised to install ‘stopped vehicle detection’ systems across the network of smart motorways.

But three years later, only a fifth of the network has been fitted with the life-saving radar technology. In that time, there have been a series of deaths on the roads caused by drivers breaking down in a live lane of traffic.

Highways England said it will not build any more ‘smart motorways’ because too many motorists do not understand them and are confused about when they can use the hard shoulder

On smart motorways, the hard shoulder is replaced by a lane to cut congestion, leaving drivers who suddenly break down stuck in the midst of fast traffic and forcing others behind them to abruptly change lanes. Though parking refuges are available at intervals, they cannot always be reached by drivers whose cars fail.

Yesterday Jim O’Sullivan, the Highways England chief, admitted that some of those tragedies could have been averted, had stopped vehicle detection systems been in place. Lilian Greenwood, chairman of the Commons transport committee, asked: ‘If stopped vehicle detection had been in place on all-lane-running schemes from the start, how many deaths would have been prevented?’

Mr O’Sullivan told MPs: ‘It’s impossible to quantify. Of the eight fatalities, undoubtedly one or two might have been avoided, but not all of them would.’

Smart motorways have been developed as a way of increasing capacity and reducing congestion without the more costly process of widening roads 

Highways England is testing a Swedish system, but it has hit problems using it in different types of weather. Mr O’Sullivan said: ‘This is ground-breaking technology. We had to prove it before we could roll it out.’ Four people were killed on the M1 in just ten months after being hit by traffic in a live lane that used to be the hard shoulder. In each case, the victim had failed to reach a refuge area.

Figures revealed that 19,316 motorists suffered the horror of breaking down in a live lane in 2017 and 2018 – a rate of 26 a day.

To add to the concerns, Mr O’Sullivan also revealed that smart motorways will no longer be built with semi-permanent hard shoulders because drivers find them ‘too complicated’.

However, many drivers consider them relatively safer than all-lane-running smart motorways, which have regularly spaced refuges.

The Government has spent millions on gantries and control rooms to tell drivers when they can use the hard shoulder.

But Mr O’Sullivan told the transport committee: ‘We get people confused between it being a hard shoulder and a running lane, and we get people who stop there when it’s a running lane.’

The announcement means the hard shoulder could become a thing of the past once the entire motorway network is converted to all-lane-running, or ALR. Mr O’Sullivan admitted there is a ‘higher likelihood’ of breaking down on an ALR motorway than a traditional one.

‘Partly this is because they are busier roads,’ he said. ‘In many cases our busiest motorways are commuting motorways. It’s more likely you will have checked your tyres and fuel level before setting off on a longer journey.’

Pressed on whether he would prefer to break down in the live lane of a smart motorway or a conventional one, Mr O’Sullivan said only that he would rather not break down in the first place.

RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said stopped vehicle detection ‘needs to be retrofitted to all existing smart motorways as a matter of urgency’.

A Highways England spokesman said stopped vehicle technology will be on all schemes built from 2020 and added: ‘We are retrofitting it on the M3 and are developing a rollout programme for other existing all-lane-running schemes. Smart motorways have more safety features than conventional motorways.’


Smart motorways’ are supposed to ease congestion by allowing cars to drive on the hard shoulder at least some of the time, with traffic being monitored via cameras and ‘active’ speed signs.

There are currently more than 20 sections of ‘smart motorway’ on seven different motorways, including on sections of the M1, the M25, the M6, the M42 and the M4. 

Six more are under construction and another 18 are being planned.

However Highways England said a ‘comprehensive’ review of ‘smart motorways’ would be carried out after admitting lower limits were not always correctly set.

There are currently more than 20 sections of ‘smart motorway’ on seven different motorways, including on sections of the M25 and the M6

Jim O’Sullivan, chief executive, said that 40, 50 or 60mph limits were being set before congestion mounted on ‘smart motorways’ in England, using predictions about traffic levels.

Data has showed that 72,348 people were fined on motorways with variable speed limits last year. This was almost double the number a year earlier and a tenfold rise in five years.

Of those, two thirds of fines were handed out to motorists travelling at 69mph or below, even though the national speed limit is 70mph.

Highways England’s advice on driving on smart motorways includes a list of recommendations:

  • Never drive under a red ‘X’ sign
  • Keep to the speed limit shown on the gantries 
  • A solid white line indicates the hard shoulder – don’t drive in it unless directed by signs 
  • Broken white lines show a normal running lane 
  • Use the refuge areas for emergencies if there’s no hard shoulder 
  • Put hazard lights on if you break down 


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