The rollout of so-called “smart motorways” that do not have a hard shoulder will be suspended, the government has confirmed. The introduction of ‘all-lane running’ motorways will cease with immediate effect, with the authorities choosing to wait until five years of data is available from existing all-lane running (ALR) roads.

The news means schemes to convert stretches of major motorways including the M25, M40 and M62 will all be put on hold until the data becomes available. In the meantime, the government has pledged to spend more than £900 million on safety measures for existing smart motorways, including the creation of more emergency refuge areas at the roadside.

A total of £390 million will be spent putting more than 150 new refuge areas in place, while the remainder of the money will fund other measures, including stopped vehicle detection technology and concrete central reservation barriers. National Highways, the government-run organisation in charge of the nation’s motorways, will also “ramp up communications” so drivers have better information about how to drive on smart motorways.

UK smart motorway network

The government’s decision comes in light of a House of Commons Transport Select Committee report, penned by a cross-party group of MPs. The report called for a halt to the ALR programme, as well as multiple safety improvements.

The committee’s findings have caused the government to take a rain check on ALR projects, pausing the conversion of seven dynamic smart motorways to all-lane running. The government says it “does not agree with the view that smart motorways were rolled out prematurely or unsafely”, but it will still wait and assess the data before making a final decision on the next steps.

UK smart motorway network

It’s a decision that follows years of concerns about the safety of smart motorways, and a government review of the roads in 2020 led Transport Secretary Grant Shapps to do away with “dynamic” hard shoulders, which can be opened to traffic and used as a live lane or closed to create a conventional hard shoulder. Claiming dynamic hard shoulders were “confusing” for drivers, he chose to make smart motorways adopt all-lane running – a move MPs on the Transport Select Committee have now branded premature.

Speaking as the Department for Transport (DfT) announced it was halting the rollout of all-lane running this week, Shapps said: “One of my first actions as Transport Secretary was to order a stocktake of smart motorways and since then, I have worked consistently to raise the bar on their safety. I am grateful to the Transport Committee and to all those who provided evidence for its work.

“While our initial data shows that smart motorways are among the safest roads in the UK, it’s crucial that we go further to ensure people feel safer using them. Pausing schemes yet to start construction and making multimillion-pound improvements to existing schemes will give drivers confidence and provide the data we need to inform our next steps. I want to thank safety campaigners, including those who have lost loved ones, for rightly striving for higher standards on our roads. I share their concerns.”

The RAC described the government’s decision as an “unqualified victory” for drivers who have concerns over the safety of smart motorways. The motoring organisation’s head of roads policy, Nicholas Lyes, said the government should consider alternatives to all-lane running.

“Rather than ploughing on regardless in the face of mounting public opposition, we’re pleased the government has finally hit the pause button and given itself time to fully consider the safety of these schemes, and the way our motorways are adapted to increase capacity from now on,” he said.

“The safety of our motorway network is paramount and no policy decisions should ever risk making our fastest roads less safe. Today’s decision to review a full five years of all the safety data and to look at all possible options with a fresh perspective should ensure our motorways can accommodate increased traffic volumes safely and – just as importantly – that the drivers using them feel safe doing so.”

UK smart motorway network