Smart motorways are to come under further scrutiny as MPs launch a fresh inquiry into their benefits and dangers, just weeks after a coroner referred Highways England to prosecutors for possible corporate manslaughter after the death of a motorist on the M1.
The Commons transport select committee is to investigate the roads after a further rise in annual deaths, claiming public confidence is faltering.
Although the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, has defended smart motorways for improving drivers’ journeys for minimal roadbuilding, he said last month that they should be safer.
The motorways, which do not have a hard shoulder and close lanes when needed through electronic overhead signs, were first trialled in the UK almost two decades ago. But many more have been created in the past seven years to create more road space at a lower financial and environmental cost.
The chair of the transport committee, Huw Merriman, said while statistical evidence showed lower death rates on smart motorways than on conventional motorways, “this message isn’t reaching the public”.
He said people’s confidence had been dented and road safety charities were worried. While he suggested enhanced safety measures, or a public awareness campaign could help, he also conceded that government policy may need to be rethought.
“There are genuine worries about this element of the motorway network and we want to investigate how we got to this point,” Merriman said.
This month a coroner in Doncaster referred Highways England, which manages the strategic road network, to the CPS, for possible corporate manslaughter charges over the death of Nargis Begum, 62, who died on a smart stretch of the M1 in 2018 when another vehicle collided with her car 16 minutes after it broke down. No warning signals had been activated.
A separate coroner’s inquest in January into the deaths of two drivers on the M1 in 2019 found that a “clear a lack of hard shoulder contributed to this tragedy”.
There were 14 deaths reported on smart motorways in 2019, compared with 11 deaths in 2018 and five in 2017.
The Department for Transport accelerated the rollout of smart motorways to help tackle increasing congestion, citing a 23% increase in annual road traffic since 2000.
A previous transport committee inquiry into all-lane running – the name for the most commonly used type of smart motorway – in 2016 called for the conversions to be paused as the safety risks had not been fully addressed.
Its report said there needed to be more driver education, greater enforcement of traffic rules and more emergency refuge areas.
The MPs later said the government had “blatantly ignored” their safety concerns.
However, increased focus on the risks – and the circumstances of the deaths – have led the government to reassess. Last March Shapps published a review of smart motorways, alongside an 18-point action plan to improve their safety.
Systems to automatically detect stopped vehicles are now supposed to be in place across all smart motorways by the end of next year, while the maximum intervals between emergency refuges for breakdowns will be reduced.
“Dynamic” hard shoulders – used for general traffic only at certain times – will be eradicated by 2025 to minimise confusion, and a £5m publicity campaign to increase awareness and understanding of smart motorways will be launched.
The AA welcomed news of the inquiry as “very timely”. The president of the motoring organisation, Edmund King, said police, crime commissioners and coroners had voiced serious concerns about smart motorways during the AA’s decade of campaigning to improve their safety.
He added: “Tragically, too many people have died on these roads in the interim. Hopefully this inquiry will concentrate minds to stress the urgency of safety improvements.”
The shadow transport secretary, Jim McMahon, also welcomed the inquiry. He said: “Ministers must act now and do what Labour has called for – reinstate the hard shoulder while a full review is carried out and the results brought back to the Commons.”