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Reviewing smart motorways part 2: Are smart motorways safe?

In the first part of our smart motorways series, we looked at the different types of smart motorway, why they were introduced and the specific road safety concerns regarding all lane running (ALR) schemes and the dangers they pose to roadside recovery workers. Now we’ll consider the safety record of smart motorways and whether they are more or less safe than a normal motorway.

Motorways are by far the safest road type each year when the DfT reports on road casualties in Britain. The most recent stats are for 2017 when there were a total of 1,793 road deaths. The majority (60%) of these occurred on rural roads (1,068). There were 626 road deaths on urban roads and only 99 on motorways. Even though motorways carry around 21% of traffic, they only account for 6% of fatalities.

While the DfT doesn’t separate these figures into smart and standard motorways a Freedom of Information request obtained by the RAC shows that at the end of 2017 there were 100 miles of ALR motorway in England. There were 16 crashes across all lanes which caused injury involving stationary vehicles, such as broken-down cars on these stretches.

Over the same period, there were 29 similar crashes involving vehicles parked up on the hard shoulder for the rest of the network in England. This includes around 1,800 miles of road. It’s possible there are higher numbers of accidents on ALR schemes because they are inherently more dangerous. But the fact that these motorways, by the nature of which motorways are upgraded, carry higher volumes of traffic is another important factor. For this reason, before and after analysis of smart motorway upgrades may provide better insight into the safety of these schemes.

Dedicated reports into smart motorway programs have not found them to be more dangerous after the upgrade.

A three-year safety report carried out for the M42 smart motorway section found that both the number of Personal Injury Accidents (PIA) and the severity of accidents went down following the upgrade.

Similarly, the sections of the M25 upgraded to smart motorway were found to have no adverse effect on safety. In fact, a small reduction in collision rate, over and above the national background of improved safety was found. While the reduction was not statistically significant, the results show that, at least, safety didn’t decline because of the scheme.

Again, the upgrade to the M1 junction 32 to 35a found no increase in accidents (fatal and severe) in 2017 after the work to upgrade this section to an ALR scheme was completed in March of that year.

In researching this blog, we could not find any evidence of a motorway becoming more dangerous after being upgraded to a smart motorway when you compare the same road before and after. We did, however, find considerable coverage in the press for fatalities when they happen on smart motorways. Could this be driving the perception that these roads are more dangerous?

With ongoing public scrutiny of the safety of smart motorways, we’ll consider the alternatives in the third and final part of our smart motorways series.

Author: Michelle C |Date Published: March 2019

Links: Route Safety Ramp Metering MIDAS News / Commentary

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