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Smart motorways up to a third deadlier than roads with hard shoulders

  • 05.05.2021
  • JessicaMG
  • Personal-injury
  • Personal Injury road traffic accident road traffic collision Department for Transport smart motorways All Lane Running

Official figures show that the death rate on smart motorways is up to a third higher compared to motorways with hard shoulders.

What is a smart motorway?

A smart motorway is a section of a motorway that uses traffic management methods to increase capacity and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas. These methods include using the hard shoulder as a running lane and using variable speed limits to control the flow of traffic.


38 people have died on smart motorways over the last five years. Many road users find the smart motorway system confusing, and there are concerns that a motorway with no hard shoulder means that drivers could find themselves trapped in a ‘live lane’ if their car breaks down, thus increasing the chances of road traffic collisions.

In January of this year, South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings told the government that smart motorways are “inherently unsafe and dangerous and should be abandoned”.

Evidence submitted to the Commons Transport Committee reveals that in 2018, the ‘live lane’ fatality rate for smart motorways was 35% higher than the rate for conventional motorways (0.19 per hundred million drivers compared to 0.14). Despite this, Nick Harris – Highways England’s chief executive – claimed only last week that smart motorways are the “saftest roads in the country”.

Recent data from the Department for Transport (DfT) showed that deaths on All Lane Running (ALR) roads – the most common form of smart motorway – were lower compared to conventional motorways in 2015, 2016 and 2017. However, an increasing number of miles of ALR roads have been constructed since and the rate of deaths has increased on ARL roads, whilst deaths on ordinary motorways have fallen. In 2019, the fatality rate on ALR roads was eight percent higher than on conventional motorways.

Five-year average

Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason tragically died in 2019 after pulling over on a part of the M1 near Rotherham with no hard shoulder, has accused the DfT of ‘deceit’ with regards to how they have put together their evidence. Mrs Mercer said: “They are purposefully using the five-year figure rather than the two most recent years.

“It is insulting they carry on defending them (smart motorways), but the most serious thing is they carry on killing people.”

Fatalities were lower between 2015 and 2017, therefore bringing down the five-year average, and so the DfT claimed fatalities were ‘less likely’ on smart motorways. But after Mr Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, died when a lorry ploughed into their two vehicles, coroner David Urpeth said smart motorways were an ‘ongoing risk of deaths’. He added that he would be writing to Highways England and the Transport Secretary to ask for a review.

Only last year, a BBC Panorama investigation found that since the hard shoulder was removed in April 2014, the number of near misses on one section of the M25 had risen from 72 to 1,485.

Tory MP Karl McCartney, who sits on the transport committee, called for all works to expand smart motorways to be ‘halted immediately’ while their safety is investigated. He said: “I think the senior management of Highways England should spend a few hours in a broken-down small car stuck on the inside lane of a smart motorway.

“If their nerve can handle that they should spend the rest of the night assisting recovery drivers changing an offside wheel on the hard shoulder at 4am in the morning as juggernauts go thundering past.”

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “The data shows fatalities are less likely on smart motorways than on conventional ones.

“This conclusion has been made by looking at the average trends over a number of years, which is essential to mitigating volatility in the casualty data.”