Pausing the rollout of smart motorways suggests the government has finally bowed to the inevitable, faced with the collective outrage of motoring groups, bereaved families, newspapers, MPs – and indeed a former minister who signed off the schemes.
Not, though, that the small print guarantees drivers have in any way seen the end of the hard shoulderless highways: ongoing major works will be completed, and even design work will go ahead for more stretches, in case the mood changes by 2025.
For now, that decision awaits more data. The trouble is that the cold data has yet to convince drivers who feel instinctively that the motorways are unsafe. While the accident statistics, as the Department for Transport continues to point out, show that smart motorways are the safest roads in the country – in terms of fatal incidents involving motorists by a significant margin, per mile, compared with A-roads – it is the circumstances of those fatalities, rather than the numbers, which have appalled.
In several cases, people died in their cars long after breaking down and calling for assistance; unable to make it to a place of safety, hit by other vehicles at high speed. Inquiries have heard harrowing testimony, including the final, recorded conversations of victims. And coroners as well as relatives have concluded that the deaths were due to the layout of the motorways.
Roads which were initially trialled with more refuge areas, or hard shoulders only used at peak times, with technology to manage speed and to detect stopped vehicles, have been rolled out without the same levels of protection.
Until today’s decision, the government had affirmed that all smart motorways would be converted to all-lane running, ie without a hard shoulder at any point. Grant Shapps’ stocktake in 2020 was an acknowledgment that drivers feared they could not be reached in the event of trouble, without a clear passage for emergency vehicles. Safety measures, from greater retrofitting of technology and clamping down on motorists ignoring the red Xs signals, were inadequate reassurance.
Nonetheless, the reasons that compelled ministers to move from trials in 2006 to mass introduction of smart motorways from 2014 remain. More and more traffic, barely dented by Covid restrictions, and less tolerance of new roads. Drivers are the most impacted by the work to convert motorways – rather than say, the neighbouring residents or surrounding countryside blighted by building a new road. Eating up the hard shoulder provides a relatively cheap, efficient, and less environmentally intrusive way of expanding the network – although green campaigners have made clear that the rollout, encouraging more traffic, is barely compatible with climate commitments.
A pause until 2025 will also save hundreds of millions of pounds on road contracts, not insignificant after the Treasury blocked planned rail investment – the kind of spending that was supposedly popular. Suspending the programme may have become a political no-brainer but the DfT’s constraints suggest any motorways built after 2025 will probably remain, more or less, “smart”.