Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport, has issued an update statement on all lane running motorways (Smart motorways).

Originally introduced in 2014, they have recently been hitting the headlines after a number of deaths were revealed. Investigation found failures to put in place effective live monitoring, along with a lack of public education on their use.

The wrong lane

The problems arise with the use of the hard shoulder as a live running lane. This can be a permanent change, or flexible according to congestion levels and the need for an extra running lane. Overhead gantries advise motorists of the operating system at any particular time. Meanwhile, CCTV/Radar should monitor any breakdowns or incidents that could lead to a crash. However, data revealed a lack of monitoring, broken cameras and a failure to even install the correct equipment.

Statistics of safety

The Government has frequently reiterated that ALR motorways are one of the safest types of road in the country. Drivers are 33% more likely to be involved in a fatal collision on a conventional motorway according to official data. However, fears remain about their safety among drivers and road safety professionals.

Shapps commissioned an evidence stocktakeafter media, relatives and coroner concerns. The findings were published in March 2020, set out recommendations ‘to raise the bar on safety’. The Secretary of State put a stop to Smart motorway building earlier this year.

The latest statement updates Parliament on actioning the conclusions of the report.

The statement:

I have on several occasions announced to this house the importance of road safety to me and my department. After hearing the public’s concerns about smart motorway safety, I commissioned an evidence stocktake and set out recommendations to raise the bar on safety. This was one of my first acts as secretary of state for transport.

The subsequent evidence stocktake was published in March 2020 and showed that ALR motorways are in most ways as safe as, or safer than, conventional ones. I was determined to make sure they were the safest roads in Britain and to this end, I announced a package of 18 measures, costing £500 million, which includes the faster rollout of a radar-based stopped vehicle detection (SVD) across the ALR network, including an additional £5 million on national and targeted communications campaigns to ensure drivers receive the right advice to help them keep safe.

Other actions included an update to The Highway Code to include new information about driving on high-speed roads, which has been achieved this year, six months earlier than scheduled. We have also changed the law to enable automatic detection of vehicles driving in closed lanes, known as red ‘X’ violations and National Highways (formerly Highways England) is upgrading specialist cameras to help better identify violations so those drivers can be prosecuted.

A year on, I commissioned a progress report from National Highways to set out progress on those 18 actions and to develop proposals about how several of them can be accelerated, going above and beyond what was originally committed to. The progress report was also an opportunity to review updated data since the 2020 Stocktake. Crucially, the data contained in the report published in April 2021 continues to show that fatal casualties are less likely on ALRs than on conventional ones.

The National Highways progress report drew its evidence from data and analysis of the 2019 STATS19 official statistics and produced by National Highways. I know that there has been considerable public and media interest in understanding motorway accident and fatality data and in March 2021 I commissioned the Office of Rail and Road to independently review the data to provide further analytical assurance and ensure that the conclusions arrived at are robust.

The ORR’s report, Quality Assurance of All Lane Running motorway data, is published today (7 September 2021). I welcome the ORR’s review and their conclusion that they found no errors in the underlying calculations, and all the products and processes reviewed are in line with established practice.

This was a thorough undertaking; the ORR drew on its expertise as the monitor of England’s strategic road network. The ORR analysed detailed information, interviewed relevant staff at both National Highways and the Department for Transport, and reviewed the evidence submitted to the Transport Select Committee inquiry, which commenced in February 2021.

To provide additional expertise and challenge, ORR took independent analytical advice from a specialist consultancy and involved the non-executive chair of its National Highways Committee. This was done to ensure the conclusions and recommendations arrived are as robust and comprehensive as possible. The report supports National Highway’s findings that smart motorways are the safest roads in the country in terms of fatalities.

The ORR’s report contains several recommendations for improvement that will strengthen our understanding of road safety. National Highways has agreed to all its recommendations and developed an action plan in response which is already underway.

My commission for assurance into smart motorway safety data by the ORR is another step towards improving road safety and instilling public confidence in the safety of our roads, which make a crucial contribution to economic and social development in this country.