Where are the smart motorways in Northamptonshire and what will happen now the scheme has been axed?
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The whole stretch of M1 that runs through Northamptonshire is now part of the smart motorway network.
Work to covert the road to a smart motorway started years ago and began with the section from junction 16 to junction 19, as part of the Government’s wider scheme to spend £1.5 billion on the project across the country. Northamptonshire’s first stretch of smart motorway opened in November 2017 and it is fair to say there has been an abundance of safety concerns and controversy ever since.
The second part of the county project saw the M1 between junction 13 and 16 converted into a smart motorway. This was finished in March 2023 after five years of construction, but already it seems to be leading to a trail of questions and uncertainties about its effectiveness and impact on road users.
Despite the intention to improve traffic flow and capacity, smart motorways have sparked public outcry and criticism, not just in the county but also across the country. The absence of a hard shoulder has left drivers feeling vulnerable and exposed, with little room for recourse in emergencies or breakdown situations.
Moreover, the significant financial investment raises eyebrows. According to the Department of Transport, the first stage of the county’s conversion between junction 16 and 19 cost £65.39 million and according to National Highways the second project to turn the 23-mile stretch of motorway in between junction 13 and 16 an all-lane running road cost £373 million.
More than £400 million has been spent on the project, as well as years of roadworks, but shortly after the completion of the project in Northamptonshire, the Government announced, in April this year, that no new smart motorways would be built, due to “lack of public confidence” and “cost pressures”, according to a Government report.
With the completion of the project in the county and the subsequent national announcement, many drivers have been left confused about the area’s smart motorways. Here we look at the background of the project and answer the question of what now?
Smart motorway issues in Northamptonshire
In January 2018, a fatal collision took place between junction 17 and 18, near Daventry. A car had broken down, another pulled over to help and then a lorry driver collided with the stationary vehicles. The man who was in the back seat of one of the cars later died.
In July of last year, one man was killed and four others were injured after a collision on the M1 between junction 17 and Watford Gap Services. A car had broken down in a ‘live’ lane and it is thought the man, who was pronounced dead at the scene, was standing at the rear of his vehicle when another driver collided with the broken down car.
More recently, a horse died on the M1 between junction 14 and 15 after a horse box broke down on July 17, 2023. Another vehicle collided with the National Highways vehicle, which had stopped to help the horsebox driver.
People in positions of power have spoken out against smart motorways
Anne Pember, senior coroner for Northamptonshire, issued a report on preventing future deaths after David Levett's tragic passing in February 2018, following the inquest, which looked into the aforementioned fatal collision between junction 17 and 18. Ms Pember said Mr Levett may have lived if there was a hard shoulder.
She said: “In my opinion there is a risk that future deaths could occur unless action is taken. In the circumstances it is my statutory duty to report to you.
“During the course of the inquest, evidence was given that the location of the collision was on an all lane running smart motorway. There was nowhere for the driver of the first vehicle to park safely e.g. on a hard shoulder.
“In my opinion action should be taken to prevent future deaths and I believe you (and/or your organisation) have the power to take such action.”
Additionally, Northamptonshire Police Chief Constable Nick Adderley has previously said: “Having worked on roads policing for many, many years, the dangers of motorways are there for all to see.
“I’m not a fan of smart motorways, really. When you have no dead lane, if you break down you have nowhere to go. You’re running the gauntlet.”
What happens now with existing smart motorways?
After the announcement that new smart motorways would be halted, the Government and National Highways revealed a further £900 million would be invested in safety improvements on existing smart motorways, including adding 150 extra emergency areas and providing clear advice to motorists.
So the future of new smart motorways may look uncertain, but for now the existing ones are here to stay.