Smart motorway rollout was "entirely wrong", transport secretary tells MPs

Grant Shapps has criticised the way in which smart motorways were rolled out, but insists they are too expensive to scrap

The secretary of state for transport has criticised the way in which Highways England rolled out smart motorways, branding it “entirely wrong” and adding that motorists still don't know how to drive on them correctly.

Speaking before the Transport Committee, Grant Shapps condemned the fact that smart motorways “sprung up” without a public information campaign on what they were and how they worked, leaving drivers confused as to what to do if they break down in a live lane.

  • What is a smart motorway? Speed cameras, safety and hard shoulder use explained

Shapps also admitted his surprise at Highways England not having implemented stopped vehicle detection (SVD) technology from the start to reduce the time taken to spot broken-down vehicles. He said that the deadline for SVD to be installed on all stretches of smart motorway is being brought forward from March 2023 to next year.

The Department for Transport (DfT) previously conducted an ‘evidence stocktake’ into smart motorways following concerns about their safety. This resulted in dynamic smart motorways – where the outer lane can switch between being a hard shoulder and a live running lane – being abolished.

Meanwhile, all-lane running (ALR) smart motorways – where there is no hard shoulder – were kept, with a commitment to place emergency refuge areas three-quarters of a mile apart where possible, and no more than one mile apart on any new stretches of ALR smart motorway.

Shapps told the Transport Committee that smart motorways are too expensive to get rid of, as creating new hard shoulders on all of them would require the purchase of land equivalent to “700 Wembley stadiums”.

Calls for smart motorway review

Smart motorways became the subject of scrutiny again in January, when a coroner called for a review of them after two men died when their stationary vehicles were struck by a lorry on the M1.

Jason Mercer’s Ford Focus and Alexandru Murgeanu’s Ford Transit collided on a stretch of the M1 smart motorway where there is no hard shoulder. When the two drivers stopped to exchange details, they were hit by a lorry being driven by Prezemyslaw Szuba.

Szuba is currently in prison, having admitted to causing death by careless driving last year. Although Coroner David Urpeth said Szuba’s inattention to the road was the primary cause of the two men’s deaths, the inquest at Sheffield Town Hall heard that the accident may have been avoided if there had been a hard shoulder for Mercer and Murgeanu to stop on.

Recording a verdict of unlawful killing, Urpeth said he would write to Highways England and Grant Shapps, calling for a review of smart motorways.

In a statement, Highways England said: “We extend our deepest sympathies to the families of Alexandru Murgeanu and Jason Mercer. We recognise this continues to be an incredibly difficult time for them.

“Every road death is a tragic loss of life. We are determined to do all we can to make our roads as safe as possible and are already addressing many of the points raised… by the coroner as published in the Government’s Smart Motorway Evidence Stocktake and Action Plan of March 2020. We will carefully consider any further comments raised by the coroner once we receive the report.”

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