MPs are warning the Government not to proceed with 'all lane running' schemes while major safety concerns exist.
The Department for Transport (DfT) intends to turn hundreds of miles of hard shoulder in England into permanent lanes, known as all-lane running, to expand capacity.
Previous smart motorway schemes have only used the hard shoulder at peak times or to deal with congestion.
However, in a report published today, the Transport Select Committee said the "dramatic change" would be dangerous.
The Committee did not agree with Government that this is an incremental change and a logical extension of previous schemes. It concluded that the permanent loss of the hard shoulder in all lane running schemes was a radical change and an unacceptable price to pay for such improvements.
Chair of the Transport Committee, Louise Ellman, said: "The permanent removal of the hard shoulder is a dramatic change. All kinds of drivers, including the emergency services, are genuinely concerned about the risk this presents.
“It is undeniable that we need to find ways of dealing with traffic growth on the strategic network. But, all lane running does not appear to us to be the safe, incremental change the Department wants us to think it is.
“While smart motorways have existed for years, this is fundamentally different. Government needs to demonstrate that all lane running schemes do not make the road any less safe that the traditional motorway with a hard shoulder.
“The Government has a model which has worked. The scheme on the M42 has a track record of safety and performance but subsequent versions have gradually lowered the standard specification.
“The most recent incarnations of all lane running have less provision for safety measures than original pilot schemes.”
The committee heard significant concerns about the scarcity, size and misuse of emergency refuge areas. “We also heard about worryingly high levels of non-compliance with Red X signals,” continued Ellman. “Levels of public awareness and confidence about using these motorway schemes are unacceptably low.
“Government needs to demonstrate considerable improvement in this area, including more emergency refuge areas, driver education and enforcement, before the Committee will endorse the extension of a scheme which risks putting motorists in harm's way."
In 2015, the DfT forecasted that traffic on the strategic road network would increase by up to 60% by 2040. The Government sees smart motorways as a way of addressing this growth without incurring the costs of traditional motorway widening.
RAC chief engineer David Bizley said: “Whilst supporting smart motorways as a cost effective and relatively rapid way of increasing motorway capacity, the RAC has repeatedly expressed concerns about the latest design which turns the hard shoulder on motorways into a permanent running lane. These concerns are widely shared by other industry groups, as well as by our members and others who regularly use motorways.
“We therefore welcome the Select Committee report and are pleased that this influential group of MPs has concluded that the decision to adopt ‘all lane running’ on all future smart motorways may be premature.
“The safety of motorists must come first and therefore new designs need to be trialled for sufficiently long to demonstrate their safety before they are introduced more widely. This was precisely the approach adopted by the Highways Agency - now Highways England - when a smart motorway with a dynamic hard shoulder was first introduced on the M42.
“The message to Government and to Highways England is clear – we should apply the principles that have proven to be safe on smart motorways such as the M42 until such time as the evidence exists to show all lane running is as safe as conventional motorways with a hard shoulder, and as smart motorways with a dynamic hard shoulder which only open to traffic as a running lane when the extra capacity is needed.
“It is encouraging that the Government and Highways England have been listening and are reviewing the design and frequency of emergency refuge areas, and we acknowledge their commitment to improving education and communication to users about how to use smart motorways safely.
“Motorways are our safest roads but, because of the speeds at which vehicles travel on them, the consequences of an accident can be severe in terms of loss of life and serious injury. We need the extra capacity that smart motorways will deliver but we must not put the safety of our motorways at risk by allowing insufficient time to prove the safety of new designs.”
Plans are in place to permanently convert the hard shoulder into a running lane on around 300 miles of motorway. Highways England has a programme of 30 all lane running schemes to the value of circa £6 billion over the next nine years.
Alan Stevens, chief scientist, Transportation at TRL - the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory, said: “The volume of traffic on our motorways is increasing, so we need to take steps to increase capacity, improve traffic flow and ease congestion in a safe and pragmatic way.
“Smart motorways allow this to be achieved usually within the highway boundary, limiting land use and disruption from road widening while ultimately providing drivers with shorter, more predictable journeys and less stressful driving.
“Whilst the Transport Select Committee has raised valid concerns over the need for sufficient evaluation, TRL believes that the implementation of technology, such as smart motorways, is vital in keeping our networks flowing and can be achieved without increasing overall risk.”
TRL has conducted several research projects using its driving simulator to see how people respond to both dynamic hard shoulder and all-lane running motorways, and found both to be no less safe than other motorways.
Stevens continued: “Of course, like with all new transport innovations, implementation will need to be continuously monitored to ensure the predicted and desired outcomes are achieved with any safety implications immediately identified and addressed.
“Also what we need to remember is that motorways are the safest roads in the country. The amount of traffic carried on these roads is huge yet the volume of incidents is low, so we must get the balance right between increasing capacity and ensuring risk to road users is tolerable. This requires safety risk evidence, which in turn needs sufficient evaluation to ensure we generate a big enough evidence base from which to draw meaningful conclusions.”