UK government scraps smart motorway plans, cites high costs and low public confidence

14 projects canceled as Prime Minister Sunak fulfills a campaign promise

The UK government has canceled all plans for new smart motorways, citing "cost pressures" and a lack of public confidence in the tech-enhanced highway stretches.

The announcement from the government earlier today said 11 smart motorways scheduled for construction between 2020 and 2025 that were previously paused won't be built, and an additional three included in future plans have all been removed from the government's road construction plans through 2030.

"While no new stretches will be converted, work on the M56 J6 to J8 and M6 J21a to J26 will go ahead as planned given they are already over three-quarters constructed," the transport department said. 

Smart motorways in the UK come in several varieties, mostly differentiated in how they handle the use of the hard shoulder (as a permanent feature, additional lane for congested periods, or eliminating it entirely in favor of vehicle lanes), but the end goal is to smooth traffic congestion by varying flow throughput and speed limits and adding ramp metering.

Safety on smart motorways has been a widespread concern since their introduction, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak made eliminating the stretches part of his campaign platform.

Rollout of the enhanced highways was paused in January 2022, when Sunak was serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer under then-PM Boris Johnson. 

"Last year I pledged to stop the building of all new smart motorways, and today I'm making good on that promise," Sunak said in a statement over the weekend. "Many people across the country rely on driving to get to work, to take their children to school and go about their daily lives and I want them to be able to do so with full confidence that the roads they drive on are safe," the PM added.

Much of the concern expressed by the UK government in 2022 was over smart motorways without shoulders, which have been plagued by reports of stopped vehicles causing accidents.  The 2022 pause was intended to last until five years of safety data has been gathered on the smart road stretches. 

"Although available data shows smart motorways are comparatively the safest roads in the country in terms of fatality rates … the government will go further by ensuring current smart motorways without a permanent hard shoulder are equipped with best-in-class technology and resources to make them as safe as possible," the government said last year.

Some of that aforementioned technology and resources will continue to be applied to existing smart motorways, the government said in today's cancellation announcement, including £900 million ($1.1 billion) the UK said it was allocating for safety improvements.

Part of those improvements include stopped vehicle detection technology, which it said has already been installed across all smart motorway lanes, 150 additional emergency areas on roads without shoulders and "giving motorists clear advice when using existing smart motorways." 

Estimations provided by the government indicate that smart motorway construction would have cost more than £1 billion, though that number wasn't shared with any context. We've asked the Department for Transport for additional comment on the decision and will update this story if we hear back. ®

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