This morning’s response from the government to the Transport Select Committee’s report on smart motorways is, in essence, that DfT accepts the MPs recommendations in full and will pause the further roll out of smart motorways (i.e. all lanes running with no hard shoulders) in order to collect and better evaluate safety-related data.
Although it would be a little unfair to characterise the response (linked in this DfT press release) as a change in direction, it could be taken to represent a more subtle shift in the DfT’s approach, perhaps indicating any ultimate regulatory choices will be driven to a greater extent by rich empirical data rather than by political enthusiasm for any particular technology’s perceived benefits.
It might be argued that the same approach informs the DfT’s approach to e-scooters, given that national trial schemes have been extended to March in order to provide more comprehensive data to inform choices about their future regulation (including the key decision on whether to authorise e-scooter use more widely).
To some extent, the wider work across government on autonomous and automated driving – led by the DfT and the Law Commission – is also indicative of an approach based heavily on data and detailed analysis. The painstaking work of the Law Commission in this field has seen three extensive consultation exercises since the passing of the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018. Its final and consolidated report is expected to be published in the next few weeks
Each of these three areas – smart motorways, e-scooters and automated driving – brings new and very real risks for all road users. The pause in the further rollout of the first and the data-based approach seen in the other areas should permit the development of policy solutions by which government and stakeholders can manage and mitigate these risks appropriately.
The pace of development of road and vehicle technologies – and their inter-connectivity with each other – may be rapid, but the process of authorising their wider deployment and exposure to the road-using public must be informed by clear analysis of sound data showing that the safety case for adoption is fully-grounded in robust data.