Road Safety News

M4 smart motorway decision could put lives at risk: Transport Committee

Wednesday 7th September 2016

The decision to develop a 32-mile stretch of the M4 into a smart motorway has been criticised by the Commons Transport Committee, whose chair says the scheme ‘could put lives at risk’.

The Government hopes the proposed scheme, announced on 2 September, will enable proactive management of the M4.

However, Louise Ellman, chair of the Transport Committee, says the decision hasn’t given ‘proper consideration for safety'.

Reported by Transport Network, Ms Ellman told the Press Association: “I think lives could be put at risk. This is a hasty decision led by cost-cutting without proper consideration for safety.

“It ignores the need for a three-year trial period for safety considerations. The Transport Committee produced a highly critical report on this.”

The aforementioned report, published in June, concluded that the Government should not proceed with motorway 'all lane running' schemes while major safety concerns exist.

Smart motorways (formerly known as managed motorways) use a range of technology to vary speed limits in response to driving conditions. They are divided into three different types: controlled motorway, all-lane running and hard shoulder running.

The application for the M4 scheme was submitted to the Planning Inspectorate for consideration in March 2015 and accepted for examination the following month.

Following a six-month examination during which the public, statutory consultees and interested parties were given the opportunity to give evidence to the Examining Authority, a recommendation was made to the Secretary of State for Transport in June 2016.

Sarah Richards, the Planning Inspectorate’s chief executive, said: “The decision announced today supports the recommendation made by the Planning Inspectorate and is the 11th application for a significant highway project to be examined.

“To date, the Planning Inspectorate has examined 58 applications for nationally significant infrastructure projects, all within the statutory timescales laid down in the Planning Act 2008.

“This certainty of knowing when a decision will be made and following full consideration of public views, provides developers and investors with the confidence needed to plan the infrastructure improvements this country needs.”

Photo: Highways England via Flickr used under Creative Commons


Comment on this story
Report a reader comment

What's your view - comment on this story:

I confirm that I have read and accept the moderation policy and house rules relating to comments posted on this website.
Your comment:
Your name and location:
Your email:

You raise a good point, Pete. Smart motorways may not have been deliberately selected on the basis of high or low crash rates, but the designers will have checked the collision histories. This knowledge will have influenced which sites to select to some degree, along with where to start the site, how long the site will be and what aspects of the design are to be included, and where.

We also now know that the effect of site selection (RTM) can be huge, in some cases the entire reduction that occurred. Even a small RTM effect, therefore, has the potential to swamp any effect of the actual smart motorways (and there are also trend effects to consider).

Several reports have demonstrated that before/after trials are just not fit for purpose and we therefore need to move to the simpler, cheaper and more accurate RCT scientific trials.
Dave Finney, Slough

Agree (3) | Disagree (3)

I think that Smart motorways are dreadful to use. We all know that we should be in lane 1 if not overtaking, but all the lanes of a motorway need to used if it is to realise its potential capacity. My experience of driving on these roads is that when the lower speed limits are in operation there are many drivers who drive as fast as they can between the gantry cameras, chopping from lane to lane, in order to make progress through the busy traffic that is travelling at around the limit in all of the lanes.

The selfish drivers are well aware that it is highly unlikely that their behaviour will be punished - after all, they slow to the temporary limit when passing the gantries. There are so few Police patrols on motorways that they are hardly going to be spotted by an unmarked vehicle, and if they were, where are they going to be stopped? There is no hard shoulder for Police to pull them over, so stopping anyone is likely to cause pandemonium.

This idea is a temporary sticking plaster to deal with chronic under-investment in our road network. What will they do when all of our three-lane motorways have been made into four lanes by allowing the use of the hard shoulder? Will they narrow the lanes to squeeze five lanes into the space where four used to be?
David, Suffolk

Agree (4) | Disagree (2)

Thanks to those who disagreed to my last post. I now know that I wasn't asleep. My boss will be happy!

Dave - I think what I really want to know is how the before and after checks that it seems have been carried out, and I assume been used to justify more smart motorways, differ from "scientific trials"?

Perhaps someone could point me to any investigations have been carried out on the effects of smart motorways? Drove through quite a long length of sections being built at the weekend.....
Nick, Lancashire

Agree (1) | Disagree (0)

David has engendered support for scientific trials on his thread and many other threads. Taking the first two m25 all lane running projects I'd like to ask if picking sites based on non safety issues is random. This was the case on m25 as the sites were typical motorway site exhibiting peak time congestion and free flow at most other times. One year after the after study was able to show a non statistically significant small improvement in safety after over 40million vehicle movements. Sounds like a decent attempt at a science based trial to me. What method would David suggest?
Pete , Liverpool

Agree (3) | Disagree (2)

Unfortunately, Nick, it's not that simple. There have been interventions that have resulted in increases in deaths and serious injuries while other larger factors have produced overall casualty reductions at those sites.

What we need to do is compare the intervention sites with "control sites" that were correctly selected. This is performed within a RCT scientific trial and, despite the fact they are cheap and accurate, to the best of my knowledge no scientific trials have ever been run for any site-based road safety intervention.

If scientific trials had been run in the first place, we could have saved most of the evaluation costs, we could have increased public trust, we would know whether to invest £millions more and we would not have taken up the government's valuable and expensive time. Let's learn from the past and do it right next time.
Dave Finney, Slough

Agree (8) | Disagree (4)

Must have been asleep when this was published!!
Nick, Lancashire

Agree (1) | Disagree (4)

I'm guessing that there are sufficient miles of these schemes which have been out there in the real world for long enough for some pretty robust conclusions as to their safety performance to be reached?

Some casualties will occur as a result of drivers and their vehicles interacting with these new layouts but how does that compare to the casualties that were occurring as a result of previous interactions between drivers/vehicles and layouts?

As long as casualty rates are down then is it not worth carrying on? How would scientific trials be carried out for this type of scheme? Perhaps someone could describe what they think the trials should have looked like compared to what was done before these Smart Motorways were introduced?
Nick, Lancashire

Agree (7) | Disagree (6)

The Transport Committee is right to be concerned and we need ask why scientific trials were rejected in every case before smart motorways were installed. Had scientific trials been run, we would now have proof of what effect smart motorways are having and everyone, including the Transport Committee, would have the evidence upon which to build future policy.

But it's never too late to start. Let's run scientific trials and find out whether smart motorways are safe enough to justify spending even more £millions of taxpayers money on.
Dave Finney, Slough

Agree (15) | Disagree (5)