By Susie Coen, Assistant Investigations Editor

Experts were skeptical about the safety of smart-motorways from the moment they were launched.

Despite 53 deaths between 2015-2018, ministers and road chiefs continue to insist they are safe.

Earlier this year, as part of a Daily Mail investigation, I worked undercover in National Highways’ busiest control centre in Hertfordshire for six weeks, and saw at first hand the serious human and technological failings that beset this scheme.

Now, as MPs call for a halt to the building of more smart motorways, here’s why ministers’ safety claims just don’t add up… 


In September, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps insisted: ‘Fatal casualties are less likely on all-lane running motorways [in which the hard shoulder has been permanently converted into a traffic lane] than on conventional ones.’

This line was also used by National Highways bosses and other ministers to defend the controversial roads. However it relies heavily on highly selective data.

It is true that between 2015 and 2019, conventional motorways had higher death rates per hundred million vehicle miles travelled compared to ‘all-lane running’ (ALR) motorways.

However, in 2015 there were only 29 miles worth of smart motorways in England (58 if both sides are included in the dual carriageway), and by 2019, it had increased to 141 (or 282 for both sides).

The dangers were growing as the smart motorway experiment expanded. In 2018, the ‘live lane fatality rate’ was more than a third higher on ALR motorways than on conventional ones, while in 2019 the rate was eight per cent higher.

Over the four years of smart motorways, there were also higher rates for serious injuries. 


Roads Minister Baroness Vere of Norbiton told MPs in June that control-room operators can close lanes within ‘minutes’ after a breakdown to protect drivers.

‘They will set the signs and they will be able to set the pan, tilt and zoom camera on to your car,’ she insisted.

However, our undercover probe revealed that the software used for this purpose is plagued by failures.

I witnessed the technology crash several times, leaving helpless National Highways staff unable to set vital signals that can save drivers’ and passengers’ lives.

During one outage, which lasted more than 30 minutes, an operator commented: ‘We’ve got no signals, you’re all going to die … whichever God you believe in, start praying now.’

National Highways reported last month that two-thirds (or more) of the vital signs used to warn drivers about lane closures or accidents had been removed from a smart motorway without a hard shoulder.

Since our investigation, several National Highways whistleblowers claimed that even the latest software is frequently crashed and must be restarted, leaving large areas without signals. 


Nick Harris, CEO of National Highways, claimed in June 2021 that smart motorways ‘actually have more than 100 per cent [CCTV] coverage’.

A Daily Mail audit of 800 CCTV cameras covering ALR motorways on National Highways on September 17 revealed more than one in ten cameras were either damaged, misted, or pointed the wrong way.

This was true for almost 50% of the cameras in one smart-motorway section on the M25.

Internal emails seen by the Mail also exposed bosses admitting that CCTV ‘blackspots’ existed on the M25.

In just one of six control rooms, staff reported almost two CCTV and technological failures per day – preventing them from setting lane closures and finding broken-down cars. 


Former National Highways CEO Jim O’Sullivan told the transport select committee that the Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) that recognises when vehicles have broken down on the motorway uses ‘ground-breaking technology’.

He added that trials on the M25 ‘proved that it works’.

Mr O’Sullivan, who said National Highways had been ‘perfecting the design of smart motorways for ten or 15 years’, added: ‘Getting it right and making sure it works…is very important to us.’

But the expensive radar system that should alert the smart-motorway control room to breakdowns within 20 seconds has given a host of false warnings – while risking fatal accidents by missing stranded cars.

Staff say the system – due to be expanded along the entire smart motorway network at a cost of £122million – is impossible to rely on.

It currently ‘protects’ 24 miles on the M25 around London and 13 miles on the M23 in Surrey.

Staff view alerts from the system, which makes a ‘groaning’ sound when it is triggered, as ‘low priority’ because it goes off so often. It can be set off by slow-moving traffic or road signs.