Improving safety was not a “primary goal” for smart motorways, documents reveal

Road bosses accused of being “unambitious and complacent” after revelation safety wasn’t a “primary goal” for smart motorway

Improving safety was not a “primary goal” when one the UK’s earlier smart motorways was being developed, a newly uncovered document has revealed.

In 2012 the Highways Agency, Highways England’s predecessor, produced a report that considered the provision of additional emergency refuge areas (ERAs) surrounding a fatality hotspot on the M1 smart motorway north of Nottingham.

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The document stated: “The primary goals for the scheme do not include improving safety and the road user safety objective is to ensure that the scheme is no less safe than the safety baseline.”

The AA, which uncovered the document, criticised this goal for being “unambitious and complacent when it comes to the crucial safety of the motorway”.

The report shows that the Highways Agency knew there was a risk that the number of vehicles stopping in live lanes would increase, and set out two options to mitigate this. The first would have seen the number of ERAs on the stretch of road increased from eight to 10 and an average spacing of 1,543 metres, at a cost of between £0.35m and £0.7m.

The second option was to increase the number of ERAs to 14 and an average spacing of 1,304 metres, costing £1m to £2m. The report said either of these options would result in a “small net decrease in risk to road users”, but in spite of this no action was taken.

Furthermore, today’s data shows that the Highways Agency significantly underestimated the likely percentage of breakdowns in live lanes depending on spacing.

With an average of 2,500 metres spacing, the organisation estimated between 25.99 per cent and 26.1 per cent breakdowns would occur in live lanes; in reality, the current rate on such stretches is as high as 38 per cent.

According to the AA, there were five fatalities on the 16-mile stretch of the M1 between junctions 30 and 35a from September 2018 to December 2019.

Edmund King, president of the AA, commented: “This report is yet more damning evidence that the higher risks of more live lane stops if emergency refuges areas were further apart was known at the time.

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“It seems incongruous that for a mere one to two per cent increase in cost of the scheme that six extra emergency refuge areas were rejected. What price can you put safety? The families of those who have died on this stretch of motorway will obviously question whether those extra emergency refuge areas would have given the drivers a better chance of getting out of live lanes.

“The government must take responsibility and accept that smart motorways in their current guise are unsustainable. We welcome the suspension of schemes but need clarity on what actions are proposed to give the public more confidence.”

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