Will the M27 Smart Motorway be safe to use?

3 minute read

Smart motorway

Construction of the smart motorway from Junctions 4 to 11 of the M27 from the M3 interchange to Fareham has finally been completed.  On 12 February 2022 the fourth lane along this stretch in both directions was opened, albeit with speed restrictions whilst the system is being tested.

The opening of a new smart motorway in the UK is controversial, as in January 2022 the Department for Transport acknowledged the concerns of the Transport Select Committee, the public and road safety groups as to the safety of smart motorways and paused the commencement of any new projects until at least 2025 to enable five years of safety data from existing schemes to be collected and analysed.

The opening of the M27 smart motorway comes at a time when the planned upgrade to the M3 to a smart motorway from Winchester to Southampton has, at least for now, been halted.

What is a smart motorway?

A smart motorway is a section of highway that uses two traffic management methods to reduce congestion in busy areas, namely by removing the hard shoulder to create a fourth lane and introducing variable speed limits to control the flow of traffic.

Why not just build a fourth lane?

Highways England and the Department for Transport have promoted the use of smart motorways as it is claimed they reduce the environmental impact by not increasing the overall width of the motorway and reducing the time, cost and disruption of building a new fourth lane.

Smart motorways – What are the safety concerns?

Following a string of high-profile fatalities and near misses on smart motorways, often when drivers miss or ignore the red ‘X’ on an overhead gantry advising that the lane ahead is blocked by a broken-down vehicle, a number of road safety groups and families of accident victims have voiced concerns.

By losing the hard shoulder there is often nowhere to safely stop in the event of a breakdown, as the Emergency Refuge Areas can be as much as 1.6 miles apart. The driver and his passengers are then reliant upon vehicle detection cameras or CCTV controllers detecting the broken-down vehicle, red X signs being promptly displayed on overhead gantries and other road users observing the signs and moving out promptly from the blocked lane.

Concerns have been raised that the system is confusing, particularly in areas where “Dynamic hard Shoulders” are in place, whereby the hard shoulder is only removed at busy times of day.

Road safety campaigners have argued that the system of variable speed limits causes drivers to slam on their brakes unnecessarily, thereby causing increased risk of rear-end collision.

There is also a concern that gantries can be too far apart in some areas, meaning that drivers can miss speed variation signs or worse still red ‘X’ signs informing road users of a closed lane ahead.

Sceptics also see smart motorways as a way to increase highway revenue by “catching out” drivers through frequently changing speed limits and imposing unwarranted speeding fines.

Indeed, according to an RAC survey, 68% of those it interviewed thought that smart motorways compromise road safety.

How has the Government responded to increase safety on the new M27 stretch?

The Government has acknowledged the safety issues with dynamic hard shoulders and as a result the M27 will have a permanent fourth lane.

Further, more Emergency Refuge Areas have been constructed on the M27 than in earlier construction projects, with 23 Emergency Refuge Areas along the new stretch, being on average every 1.27 miles.

A modern Stopped Vehicle Detection System has also been installed to speed up the time that a stopped vehicle is observed, and steps taken to close the affected lane.

Finally, the hard shoulder has been retained along the busy section from Junctions 7 to 8.

Will the new M27 smart motorway increase accidents and personal injury?

Highways England has stated that personal injury in areas controlled by smart motorways has reduced by 50%, although it is unclear how this figure was reached.

Only time will tell if such confidence in the safety of modern smart motorways with Stopped Vehicle Detection Systems, increased Emergency Refuge Areas and regular signage gantries will prove to be accurate on the M27.

Here at Enable Law we will be monitoring closely the impact of the M27 smart motorway changes on the numbers of personal injury claim instructions.

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