More than two years since the government announced that up to 400 miles of the so-called smart highway would be rolled out across England by 2025, the plan has been shelved.
Ministers say the policy will be “paused” – until five years of safety data for such schemes introduced before 2020 has been collected.
The proposals were unveiled with much fanfare by Highways England in 2019, despite criticism from experts who claimed they could endanger drivers.
Here, Sky News explains the key issues surrounding smart highways.
What are smart highways?
Smart highway is a term used for sections of highways in the UK that use various forms of technology and active traffic management (ATM) techniques to increase capacity.
They were considered desirable by a range of governments as a faster and cheaper alternative to widening carriages.
First introduced 14 miles from the M25 in 1995, it was extended from the 2000s to cover hundreds of miles of highway across the country.
Although mainly used in England, in Scotland they are also known as intelligent transport systems.
Smart highways fall into three main categories:
- Controlled: highways with variable speed limits, but with permanent hard shoulders.
- Dynamic: Sections of the highway where the hard shoulder is selectively open to moving vehicles when three-lane traffic is considered too high. The speed limit will be reduced to 60 mph when this happens.
- All-lane running: Where variable speed limits are applied, but there is no hard shoulder and all lanes are permanently open to moving vehicles.
The last of these is the type to which the government’s latest announcement pertains.
On these stretches of highway, the hard shoulder is only closed to traffic in the event of an incident. In that case, a red X will appear above the lane on an overhead portal.
They have more regular waste areas for motorists with breakdowns or accidents than on the standard motorway.
Where are the country’s smart highways?
The network of smart highways has been developed along some of the busiest stretches of the country’s high-speed highway.
The traffic management technique, including hard-shoulder running, was first used in the UK in 2006 on part of the M42 in the West Midlands.
Now covering approximately 375 miles, smart motorway sections have since been introduced on sections of the M1, M3, M4, M5, M6, M20, M23, M25, M27, the M40/M42, M56 and M62 interchange.
How much did they cost?
In 2007 it was estimated that ATM could be rolled out at a cost of £5-15 million per mile, compared to the £79 million per mile widening the wagons was deemed to cost.
In 2010, the Conservative government announced a total of £2 billion in contracts to extend the schemes.
In November 2020, it was estimated that the planned smart highway rollout would cost taxpayers a further £1.2 billion.
While the total expenditure on smart highways since their introduction has been difficult to calculate, the Department of Transport is committing £900 million to improve safety on the existing network over the next four years.
What are critics saying about smart highways?
Criticism of smart highways has caused a number of problems.
Environmentalists say they are doing nothing to reduce traffic or emissions of harmful carbon dioxide, while Friends of the Earth have previously suggested they could actually increase emissions.
However, the most vehement condemnation of the schemes related to safety issues.
A Freedom of Information request in 2020 revealed that 38 people had died on smart highways in the past five years.
It also showed that the number of “near misses” on a section of the highway had increased by 2,000% to 1,485 in the five years since the rebuild.
The RAC has expressed concern about the risk to motorists posed by smart highways, while the AA has said they “endanger road safety”.
A report from the Commons Transport Select Committee (TSC) in November said plans to remove the emergency lane from all future smart highways and use the lane for live traffic were “premature” and advised they be suspended.
What will happen to smart highways now?
The government has not only halted the rollout of new all-lane smart highways until five years of data are collected, but has also pledged to “rethink the case” for installing monitored smart highways.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: “While our first data shows that smart highways are among the safest roads in the UK, it is critical that we move forward to ensure people feel safer using them.
Breaking down schemes that have yet to begin construction and making millions of pounds of improvements to existing schemes will give drivers confidence and provide the data we need to inform our next steps.”