Smart motorways are “inherently unsafe and dangerous and should be abandoned”. This is the view  of police and crime commissioner for South Yorkshire, Dr Alan Billings in his letter to Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Schapps.

These are just the latest condemnations of the government ‘road improvements’. Since the practical introduction of these evolved motorways in 2006, the list of concerns and complaints has continued to grow. Road safety fears, deaths and near misses are all on the rise.

Dr Billing’s comments are a response to those made recently by coroner David Urpeth. His findings that two more motorists had been unlawfully killed on a section of the M1 in Yorkshire, led him to describe the “smart” motorway as “an ongoing risk”. He is calling for a major review.

Smart motorways and ‘all-lane running’ see the removal of the hard shoulder, utilising it as an extra live traffic lane.

No Improvement

Worries by experts are steadily rising about safety and the ethical validity of the motorway modernisation. Last year, the head of the Police Federation of England and Wales, John Apter, described them as ‘death-traps’ that ‘put lives at risk’. He was speaking the day after BBC’s Panorama programme revealed a number of bleak statistics. It discovered that 38 people killed on smart motorways over five years. On one stretch of the M25, the removal of the hard shoulder had resulted in a near 20-fold increase in near-misses.

Cameras used to monitor breakdowns and incidents often didn’t work. This led to a lack of warning to oncoming traffic of blocked lanes due to breakdown. The refuge areas for stranded motorists are too far apart to be effective in many emergency situations. Surveys revealed drivers unaware of how to drive on the new road systems. Meanwhile, large numbers of motorists feared driving on them.

Signs of Change

Secretary of State for Transport, Grant Schapps, instigated an urgent review. The prescription was for more frequent refuge areas and the rolling out of radar to detect stranded vehicles. However, today’s 500 miles of smart motorway only have the radar technology on 37 miles. The rest rely on less effective CCTV.

Serious concerns go back as far as 2005. A House of Commons select committee report was damning, calling for an immediate halt to the programme. The original, much safer concept, was effectively being repurposed and utilised to increase capacity on unsuitable stretches of motorways. The  Department of Transport faced accusation of allowing cost considerations to override safety.

A Losing Battle

Responding to Dr Billings’ open letter, the Department for Transport says: “The stocktake [of smart motorways] showed that in most ways smart motorways are as safe as, or safer than, the conventional ones.”

Dr Billings describes such comments as “absurd” and that smart motorways are about expanding capacity on the cheap, “I think we’re trading cost – cheapness – for other people’s lives.”

According to a YouGov poll in January, 57% of motorists oppose the schemes, with 64% perceiving them as ‘less safe’ than conventional motorways.