The UK government has announced that the construction of all new smart motorways is being cancelled due to cost and safety concerns. This includes 11 projects that were already on pause and three that were set for construction. Smart motorways are stretches of road where technology is used to regulate traffic flow and ease congestion, while also using the hard shoulder as an extra lane of traffic.
This decision comes after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to ban smart motorways during his campaign, saying “all drivers deserve to have confidence in the roads they use to get around the country”. The Department for Transport has stated that the new schemes would have cost more than £1bn, and cancelling them will allow time to track public trust in smart motorways over a longer period.
Smart motorways come in three main types: controlled, dynamic, and all-lane running. Controlled motorways have a permanent hard shoulder, but use technology such as variable speed limits to adjust traffic flows. Dynamic motorways have a hard shoulder that can be opened up at peak times and used as an extra lane, with the speed limit reduced to 60mph. All-lane running motorways have the hard shoulder permanently removed to provide an extra lane, with emergency refuge areas provided at regular intervals for cars that get into trouble.
Seven of the 14 projects that have been cancelled were going to involve converting stretches of motorway into all-lane running roads. However, they will now remain as dynamic smart motorways where the hard shoulder can be opened as an extra lane during busy times. The construction of two stretches of smart motorway from junctions six to eight on the M56, and from 21a to 26 on the M6, will continue as they are already more than three quarters complete.
Smart motorways were developed to create more capacity and cut congestion on roads, without spending money and causing disruption building news ones. However, they have been criticised by MPs and road safety bodies, including the AA and RAC. Claire Mercer, whose husband died on a smart motorway in South Yorkshire in 2019, welcomed the move but pledged to continue campaigning for the hard shoulder to return on every road.
A BBC Panorama investigation in 2020 found 38 people had died in the previous five years on smart motorways. AA president Edmund King said: “We have had enough coroners passing down their deadly and heart-breaking judgments where the lack of a hard shoulder has contributed to deaths.” He added that he would like to see the hard shoulder reinstated on existing stretches in due course.
Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: “Today’s announcement means no new smart motorways will be built, recognising the lack of public confidence felt by drivers and the cost pressures due to inflation.” Meera Naran, whose eight-year-old son was killed on a smart motorway in 2018, said the announcement was a “huge achievement” but she would continue campaigning for merging both regular and smart motorways into what she called “controlled motorways”.
The government’s decision to cancel the construction of all new smart motorways has been welcomed by many road safety organisations and families affected by tragedies on these roads. While existing smart motorways will remain and undergo a safety refit, campaigners are still pushing for more changes to ensure drivers’ safety on these roads.