England is set to get another 400 miles of smart motorways by April 2025 under the government’s road strategy, despite increasing concerns over their safety.
The system is currently operating on parts of the M1, M4, M6, M25, M42, M60 and M62. The new smart motorways will feature some changes, including emergency laybys closer together, a mile apart as opposed to current 1.5 miles, increased speed limits driving past roadworks, from 50mph to 60mph, and a new name; ‘digitalads’.
According to figures from Highways England, there were 16 crashes on smart motorways involving stationary vehicles in 2017. In contrast, there were 29 crashes on the hard shoulder across the rest of the 1,800 miles of England’s motorways.
A recent safety assessment of part of the smart motorway on the M25 found a 29% reduction in the number of crashes – 9.3 crashes registered per 100 million miles.
One in ten motorway deaths occur on the hard shoulder, and usually involve vehicles hitting stationary cars from behind.
According to Jim O’Sullivan, chief executive of Highways England, said, “With the volume, speed and size of modern cars, the refuge areas are safer than the hard shoulder. You will not get a car or truck drift into the emergency refuge area, whereas they can and do drift into the hard shoulder.
“We are now well into smart motorway operation and the statistics we have are reliable. They are telling us that the safety record on smart motorways is arguably better than what we see on conventional motorways.”
Highways England ensures the safety of smart motorways due to the emergency laybys, but motoring groups are worried that the removal of the hard shoulder poses a risk to motorists.
The AA has expressed concerns over the safety of the plan. AA president, Edmund King, said, “We support road improvements to remove pinch points and improve motorway capacity but not if it compromises road safety.
“Emergency refuge areas (ERAs) would be safer than a hard shoulder if motorists could get to them.”
The AA have warned that it is potentially more dangerous to exit an emergency layby than a hard shoulder, as it is difficult to get up to speed. The lack of hard shoulder also means it takes longer for emergency vehicles longer to get to incidents due to traffic filling all lanes.
King said, “Renaming smart motorways as ‘digital roads’ doesn’t mean the system still won’t crash. We are happy to embrace technology but more physical emergency laybys would reassure drivers and make our roads safer.”
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