The Government-owned company that is responsible for the operation, maintenance, and improvement of England’s motorways and major A roads – National Highways – has recently published a third-year progress report constituting a “stocktake” of the country’s smart motorways. 

It is the third such report since the publication of an Action Plan in 2020, and includes evidence that in most cases, smart motorways are actually safer than the roads they replaced. 

This comes on the backdrop of the UK Government having announced in April 2023 that it would cancel plans for new smart motorways, due to a combination of financial pressures and a perceived lack of confidence in these controversial motorways among drivers. 

The subject of smart motorways continues to polarise drivers and other stakeholders 

In truth, smart motorways have long been a contested topic among drivers, transport consultants, and other observers. 

Back in April, for instance, when the Government confirmed that it would not proceed with any new smart motorways, the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation (CIHT) said that its polling through its social media profiles on whether this was the right or wrong decision, revealed that 61% of respondents agreed with the decision. 

However, it is also worth noting that even after the cancellation of new smart motorway projects, existing smart motorways in England have continued to operate. Indeed, National Highways has invested £900 million in further safety improvements for these roads. 

How has National Highways progressed with its ‘action plan’ to improve smart motorway safety? 

In March 2020, an Action Plan – geared towards enhancing the safety of smart motorways – was published by National Highways and the Department for Transport (DfT). 

In the years since then, the Government-owned company has published an annual stocktake, which provides a progress report in relation to the steps the 2020 Action Plan set out. 

On Thursday 14th December, National Highways published its third-year progress report. The organisation confirmed in this document that it had now carried out all the actions included in the Action Plan that were due to be completed by this point. 

Those actions encompassed such measures as launching the “Go left” breakdown advice campaign to help heighten awareness and understanding of smart motorways and how they work, as well as the provision of more than 700 additional signs, and the upgrading of all cameras to support “Red X” compliance. 

National Highways had also committed to reducing the average national emergency attendance time from 17 minutes to 10 minutes. Sure enough, the third-year progress report showed that the organisation had been successful in this regard, with it now taking – on average – nine minutes and 49 seconds for traffic officers to attend incidents. 

Another priority for National Highways in recent times has been responding to recommendations set out by the Transport Select Committee (TSC), following the latter’s enquiry into the rollout of smart motorways. 

The company’s steps in light of the TSC’s report on the issue have included – but have not been limited to – continuing to invest in further safety measures at certain locations, and publishing and updating its emergency area retrofit programme. The organisation has also completed a full impact assessment, safety risk assessment, and stakeholder consultation on the emergency corridor concept.

However, the statistics on smart motorway safety will be of particular interest to many observers 

Another key element of the most recent National Highways progress report has been the updated safety data provided in relation to smart motorways. 

Among the several eye-catching findings, it was indicated that all three types of smart motorway were safer than conventional motorways in terms of deaths or serious injuries. The report further stated that comparisons of smart motorway sections prior to their construction and afterwards, showed that in most cases, smart motorways were safer than the roads they replaced. 

Furthermore, it was discovered that among people who had recently driven or ridden on a smart motorway, 82% reported that they were very or fairly confident when travelling on smart motorways. 16% of such respondents, however, stated that they were not very, or not at all confident. 

Our own transport consultants are sure that such findings will continue to inspire spirited debate about the merits – or otherwise – of smart motorways for a long time to come, especially as efforts continue with the aim of enhancing the safety of current smart motorways. 

To learn more about how our experts in transport planning and infrastructure design can help you extract the greatest potential from your own projects in 2024 and beyond, please feel free to reach out to us at your closest Transport Planning Associates (TPA) office