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Smart motorways: where are we now?

By David Withers, partner, and Georgie Woolmer, solicitor, in our serious injury team 


The first smart motorway, originally called “Active Traffic Management System” was introduced in 2006 as part of a pilot on the M42. They comprise electronic variable speed limit signs enforced by speed cameras. The hard shoulder is opened as a running lane at times of peak congestion. This creates an extra lane to provide additional capacity, without the expense of widening the road.

Different types of smart motorway

There are now three different types of smart motorway:

Controlled motorways: These have three or more lanes, variable speed limits and a hard shoulder for emergency use only.

Dynamic hard shoulder motorways: These have variable speed limits and a hard shoulder that can be opened at peak periods, as indicated by signage.

All lane running motorways: These have variable speed limits, no hard shoulder and an emergency refuge area roughly every 0.75 miles to 1.5 miles. If the lane is closed, because of an accident for example, a red X is shown on the signage.

Safety concerns

The concerns about safety often relate to all lane running motorways and dynamic hard shoulder motorways operating in peak periods. There is no hard shoulder.

AA president Edmund King has previously said: “The danger of breaking down in a live lane comes when you can't get to a refuge area. Some 38 per cent of breakdowns occur in a live lane on a smart motorway”. 

The AA lobbied the Government leading to a pledge to place the refuges no more than one mile apart. However, the existing network still has them spaced 1.5 miles apart.

There have been increasing concerns raised about the safety of smart motorways. In February 2021, a coroner referred Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service to consider whether corporate manslaughter charges were appropriate. This was following the tragic death of Nargis Begum, 62, who died on the M1 in South Yorkshire in September 2018.

Mrs Begum, from Sheffield, a mother-of-five and grandmother-of-nine, was in a Nissan Qashqai driven by her husband which broke down on the M1 near Woodall Services.

My colleague, Chris Kardahji, is supporting the family to seek justice. The outcome of that referral is awaited.

Another colleague, Helen Smith, is representing Claire Mercer. Her husband, Jason, and Alexandru Murgreanu were killed when they were knocked down by a lorry shortly after a minor collision on an ALR motorway near Sheffield. Claire is urging other people to speak out about their experiences of safety on the controversial roads

Four coroners have now written reports warning about the potential for future avoidable deaths to occur as a result of smart motorways.

The data

Highways England, in its Smart motorways stocktake progress report for 2021, found: “This Progress Report shows that in terms of fatality rates, smart motorways are the safest roads in the country. In more detail, it also shows that approximately per mile travelled: 

  • Fatal casualty rates are a third higher on conventional motorways
  • Serious casualty rates are a tenth lower on conventional motorways compared to ALR
  • Slight casualty rates on conventional motorways are similar to ALR”.

In summary, based on the data as presented by the Department for Transport which has not been widely accepted, the risk of slight injury is broadly similar, but the risk of serious injury is higher. The risk of fatalities is said to be lower. 

However, figures released as part of Highways England’s submission to the Commons transport committee show that in 2018 and 2019 ALR motorways had more deaths per hundred million miles than regular motorways with a hard shoulder. This has caused concerns to be raised about whether the data is being massaging to change public perception of the dangers associated with smart motorways. The Department for Transport stood by its figures, arguing that longer-term averages were needed to balance “volatility” in single-year data.


There is likely to be increased judicial scrutiny of smart motorways in the near future as more personal injury claims, arising from fatalities and other serious injuries, are litigated.

There is, tragically, likely to be more inquests involving bereaved families in consequence of the lack of hard shoulder.

What is clear is that smart motorways are still fairly new. The worrying trend is that deaths per mile of smart motorway are increasing in recent years rather than decreasing despite their usage being rolled out more widely and road users being better educated about them.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting families following road collisions at our dedicated serious injury section.

The worrying trend is that deaths per mile of smart motorway are increasing in recent years rather than decreasing despite their usage being rolled out more widely and road users being better educated about them.”