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Smart motorways will be called into question

  • Market Insight 23 December 2020 23 December 2020
  • Global

  • Insurance 2021 - the year ahead

Six months after the British government concluded that the nation’s new smart motorways are in most ways as safe as, or safer than, conventional motorways, two bereaved families very publicly disagreed.

In November 2020, the families jointly called for an end to smart motorways after they lost loved ones on a modified stretch of the M1 in South Yorkshire. In both cases, the deceaseds’ vehicles had stopped on the road and were subsequently struck by other vehicles. One of the families has instructed a law firm to investigate the case with a view to pursuing legal action. Over the last four years, 44 people have died on these new-style roads.

According to the government’s report, the majority of risks such as tailgating are all lower on smart motorways. However, the report accepted that some risks, including that of a crash between a moving and stationary vehicle, are higher.

Criticism of smart motorways has primarily arisen following fatalities involving stranded vehicles and vehicles proceeding down closed lanes. These criticisms focus on smart motorways with a ‘dynamic hard shoulder’ and those with ‘all lane running’, with members of the public being unsure about using the hard shoulder.

The RAC’s head of roads policy noted that two-thirds of drivers believed that permanently removing the hard shoulder compromises safety in the event of a breakdown. “It remains to be seen whether these [the Government’s] measures go far enough to protect drivers who are unfortunate enough to break down in live lanes."

Despite the Government's seeming commitment to addressing perceived safety risks, it appears that further smart motorways projects with dangerously few lay-bys are to be introduced. Nine projects, with a combined distance of 138 miles, have been announced. They include a 32-mile section of the M3, 17 miles of the M6 and 23 miles of the M1, all already under construction.

The Department for Transport is committed to ensuring that Highways England delivers its 18-point action plan to the agreed timescales. However, with campaigners remaining critical of the proposals as well as doubts as to how effectively they will be implemented, only time will tell whether the recommended measures are sufficient to address safety concerns and the fatalities occurring.

What seems likely is that, at some point in the near future, a test case will be brought, and Britain’s smart motorways will have their day in court.

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