Why are smart motorways being scrapped? DfT’s decision explained and the new projects being axed

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Safety and cost fears see 14 projects abandonded but government says removing existing sections is too disruptive and costly

All new smart motorway schemes in the UK are being scrapped, the government has confirmed. 

The Department for Transport said that no new sections of the controversial roads would be built and confirmed that schemes already paused for safety research would be removed from its future road building plans. It said that the decision reflected financial pressures and the lack of public confidence in the roads.

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In total, 14 planned smart motorways are being scrapped - 11 previously paused in January 2022 and three earmarked for construction. However, two stretches - between junctions six to eight of the M56, and 21a to 26 of the M6 - will continue as they are already more than three-quarters complete. 

The DfT said that the scrapped projects would have cost more than £1 billion but also acknowledged that many drivers felt unsafe on smart motorways. It did, however, leave the door open for their revival, saying “cancelling these schemes will allow more time to track public confidence in smart motorways over a longer period”. It also said that existing stretches of smart motorway would remain.

There have been mounting calls to scrap smart motorways - which turn the hard shoulder into a live traffic lane and replace it with emergency refuge areas - and in his leadership campaign last year Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to ban them. 

What are smart motorways?

Smart motorways are seen as a relatively quick and cheap way to expand road capacity.

They involve turning the hard shoulder into an additional live traffic lane. This is either permanent - in the case of all-lane running roads - or at peak travel times - in the case of routes with a dynamic hard shoulder. Instead of a hard shoulder, emergency refuge areas are placed at intervals of up to 1.5 miles.

Cameras and radar are used to detect any vehicle stopped in a live lane and overhead gantries used to warn drivers of lane closures or reduced speed limits ahead.

Announcing the cancellation of all projects, he said: "All drivers deserve to have confidence in the roads they use to get around the country. That’s why last year I pledged to stop the building of all new smart motorways, and today I’m making good on that promise.

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“Many people across the country rely on driving to get to work, to take their children to school and go about their daily lives and I want them to be able to do so with full confidence that the roads they drive on are safe.”

Safety fears centre around the risk of a broken down vehicle being hit by another vehicle in a live traffic lane. Stopped vehicle detection technology is supposed to help prevent that but twice in the last six months the system has suffered major nationwide failures

Campaigner Claire Mercer, whose husband was killed on a smart motorway in South Yorkshire, welcomed the Government’s move but pledged to continue pushing for the hard shoulder to return on every road.

She told the PA news agency: “It’s great, it’s very good news. I’m particularly happy that it’s been confirmed that the routes that are in planning, in progress, have also been cancelled. I didn’t think they’d do that.

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“So it’s good news, but obviously it’s the existing ones that are killing us. And I’m not settling for more emergency refuge areas. So it’s half the battle, but we’ve still got half the battle to go.”

Which smart motorways have been scrapped?

The new announcement covers 11 existing projects, including seven to covert dynamci hard shoulder to all lane running, plus three planned for construction:

  • M1 Junction 10 to 13
  • M1 North Leicestershire
  • M1 Junction 35A to 39 - Sheffield to Wakefield
  • M3 Junction 9 to 14
  • M4 - M5 interchange (M4 Junction 19 to 20 and M5 Junction 15 to 17)
  • M6 Junction 4 to 5
  • M6 Junction 5 to 8
  • M6 Junction 8 to 10a
  • M6 Junction 19 to 21A - Knutsford to Croft
  • M25 Junction 10 to 16
  • M40/M42 interchange
  • M42 Junction 3a to 7
  • M62 Junction 25 to 30
  • M62 Junction 20 to 25

Existing smart motorways to remain

Although no new smart motorways will be built, the government said that existing stretches - more than 400 miles across England - will not be removed. A Downing Street spokesperson said that reinstating the hard shoulder would be "too disruptive" and cost a "significant" amount.

Instead, he said, the DfT would press ahead with a £900 million project to install more emergency refuge areas and improved stopped vehicle detection systems.

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However, RAC road safety spokesman Simon Williams said that anything other than fully reinstating the hard shoulder would be "a very unsatisfactory half measure" which could lead to "more avoidable deaths”. He commented: “With the decision made to scrap all new smart motorways, drivers are simply not going to buy the Government’s line that reinstating the hard shoulder would be too disruptive and costly. After all, they have already had to endure years of disruption while these controversial motorways were installed, so we’d imagine most will be very happy to endure a little more, especially if it means they will have safer motorways as a result.

“As for the cost, while the Government had already committed £900m to retrofitting emergency refuge areas, it will now be making savings of more than £1bn by not going ahead with any new schemes in the future. Painting around 235 miles of white lines will surely cost a fraction of what has been spent on these schemes overall.

“The public has made it clear it wants the hard shoulder back, and that’s what the Government should do."

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