Smart motorways with a temporary hard shoulder are “too complicated” for motorists to handle, the chief executive of Highways England has admitted.
The controversial initiative, which sees a “dynamic” hard shoulder turn into a fully-functioning lane for traffic at certain times, is already operational on parts of the M1, M4, M5, M6, M42 and M62.
Mr O’Sullivan told the Commons Transport Select Committee that drivers are confused about when they can and cannot use the hard shoulder, with some opening only at peak times.
“People whose normal daily commute takes place at 8am or 9am, if they’ve been to the dentist, then come out at 11am they drive down the hard shoulder,” he said.
“When we close it at other times of the day, people still drive down it. We get people who stop there when it’s a running lane.”
He added that at other times of day the lane is barely used because motorists are unsure if it is open or not.
“I don’t think we will be building any more dynamic hard shoulder smart motorways,” he said. “They’re just too complicated for people to use.”
Smart motorways have been developed as a way of increasing capacity and reducing congestion without the more costly process of widening roads.
Safety fears spark debate
But their introduction has been blighted by a spate of accidents, with some drivers killed after stopping in live running lanes.
In March, Derek Jacobs, 83, died when his car was hit by a coach when he stopped in the fast lane on a smart section of the M1 in Derbyshire.
A woman had been killed on the same stretch of road after leaving a broken-down car a few months earlier.
In May 2018, eight year-old Dev Naran died instantly after his grandfather pulled onto a “dynamic” hard shoulder on the M6.
They were stationary for just 45 seconds before being hit by a lorry travelling at 56mph.
Four people were killed on the same stretch of the M1 northbound in 10 months after they became stranded on a hard shoulder turned into a live lane.
‘They are safe’
In September 2018, a 62 year-old woman died after she stepped out of her broken-down car on the M1 near Sheffield, while Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, were fatally struck after they failed to reach a lay-by on the 16-mile stretch.
Mr Mercer’s widow Claire sued Highways England for manslaughter after her husband’s death, fearing that more motorists would be killed if they continue to be “robbed” of a place to quickly stop.
Steve Godbold, 52, was killed on an M25 smart motorway in September 2017.
Mr O’Sullivan insisted that smart motorways are “as safe or safer than conventional motorways”.
He added: “I would prefer to break down in the live lane of a managed motorway or a smart motorway than I would prefer to break down on a live lane on a conventional motorway or on a dual carriageway.”
Steve Gooding, director of motoring research charity the RAC Foundation, welcomed the move being halted.
He said:”The simpler motorways are to understand, the safer they will be, as motorists concentrate on the hazards ahead rather than grappling with which lanes are available to them and which are not.”