Editor, Safety & Health Practitioner

Author Bio ▼

Ian joined Informa (formerly UBM) in 2018 as the Editor of Safety & Health Practitioner. Ian studied journalism at university before spending seven years in online fantasy gaming. Prior to moving to Informa, Ian worked in business to business trade print media, in the automotive sector. He was Online Editor and then moved on to be the Editor of two publications aimed at independent automotive technicians and parts distributors.
January 31, 2020

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Road safety

38 deaths in five years – how safe are smart motorways?

For the first time, the total number of deaths on smart motorways has been reported, with figures showing thirty-eight deaths over the last five years.

busy traffic on uk motorway road

The government has told the BBC’s Panorama programme that thirty-eight people have been killed on smart motorways since they were introduced in the UK in 2014.

They have faced heavy criticism because a lack of hard shoulder means motorists can be trapped in a ‘live’ lane amongst speeding traffic in the event of a breakdown.

The figures showed that in the five years before the road was converted into a smart motorway there were just 72 near misses. In the five years after, there have been 1,485.

In response, a Highways England spokesperson said: “Any death on our roads is one too many, and our deepest sympathies remain with the family and friends of those who lost their lives.

“The Transport Secretary has asked the Department for Transport to carry out, at pace, an evidence stocktake to gather the facts about smart motorway safety. We are committed to safety and are supporting the Department in its work on this.”

‘Jason and Alexandru’s death’s prove these motorways are anything but smart’.

Claire Mercer lost her husband in an accident on the M1, after the 16-mile stretch was converted into a smart motorway.

Highways England claims that smart motorways have improved the safety of British motorways. The new roads use technology as a way of minimising congestion and easing the flow of traffic.

The organisation claims that a risk assessment of the design for the latest generation of smart motorways estimated an 18% reduction in risk, compared to a conventional motorway.

Mike Wilson, Chief Highway Engineer, also asserted that there was evidence proving that smart motorways were improving safety as ‘the first nine of the latest generation of smart motorways have reduced casualty rates by more than 25%’.

Despite their claims to increased safety, their own report highlights that drivers are three-times more likely to break down in a live lane when the hard shoulder has been removed.

In the 10 months after the modification of a 16-mile stretch of the M1, four people were killed after being hit by oncoming traffic, as there was no hard shoulder to protect them. Jason Mercer was one of the recent victims as he, and another driver Alexandru Murgeanu, were hit by a lorry after thier car broke down in the new ‘live lane’.

Following the introduction of the live lane, Highways England implemented the ‘Red X’, a signal for drivers to switch lanes if an immobilised vehicle appeared. However, on the day that Mercer and Mergeanu were caught stranded, no ‘Red X’ warning appeared according to reports.

Prior to this incident, a 62-year-old woman and an 83-year-old man were also killed in smart motorway-related incidents. The cause of all four deaths was their failure to reach an Emergency Relief Area on the 16-mile Northbound stretch of the M1 after the hard shoulder was scrapped.

How safe are smart motorways?

Jason Mercer’s wife Claire is suing Highways England for corporate manslaughter, claiming the organisation failed to provide sufficient protection. A report found that on average it takes CCTV operators twenty minutes to spot stranded vehicles before closing the lane. “These tragic deaths show the systems have failed repeatedly,” said Claire.

Edmund King, President of the AA, was shocked at the findings. “It shows just how dangerous it can be breaking down in a live lane. Ultimately, until you are found by the camera you are a sitting duck. Expecting someone to wait in a dangerous and life-threatening position for 20 minutes is simply inexcusable.”

In 2018, Highways England admitted that the speed limits they imposed don’t necessarily reflect real-time traffic conditions. If congestion doesn’t build up as expected, motorists are sometimes told to drive 30 mph below the normal speed limit despite roads being clear.

Highways England plan to nearly double the smart motorway network from 416 to 788 miles by 2025. Claire Mercer argued that the government and the motorway company were in ‘collective madness’ as they failed to recognise the tragedy caused by smart motorways.

MP Tracey Crouch called for the roll-out of smart motorways to be halted amid concerns that the replacement of the hard shoulder posed safety concerns for drivers and breakdown services.

police motorwayThe Police also disagree with the system as the force has complained that there is nowhere to pull over reckless drivers. With no hard shoulder, officers are forced to drive for ‘miles and miles’ before apprehending culprits. Emergency services also state that the time taken to get to the scene of an accident is now considerably longer as they have to battle through stationary traffic when they would, in the past, have been able to use the hard shoulder.

Sally Jacobs lost her husband on a section of smart motorway when he was crushed getting out of his car. She told the BBC that it took the emergency services one-hour to get to the scene because there was no hard-shoulder to enable them access the scene quickly.

PC Stuart King, Motorway Police, said that “[they] have to force [their] way through the small gap between lorries and cars whereas before [they] would use the hard-shoulder to get there much quicker, no we’re” in the even of an accident.

In 2016, a worker was been fatally injured on the M1 smart motorway site in Northamptonshire.

Work that involves driving is reported to be high risk. The transport and storage industry is one of the most high-risk industries in the UK. Inevitably, workers that drive for a living are at higher risk of being involved in a road accident and moving vehicles if one of the biggest hazards related to work fatalities.

The safety of smart motorways has been disputed by many. Highways England continues to defend the new road system, claiming it tackles the issues of congestion and improves the safety of motorists. However, given the alarming number of smart-motorway incidents in the past year, should something change?

Highways England – smart motorways advice

Recovery operators

  • Vehicle recovery operators are never expected to work in a live lane, and their safety – and the safety of all road users – is our top priority.
  • Measures should be in place to ensure this is the case (e.g. emergency traffic management, reduced speed limits and Traffic Officer support) before recovery operators attend a broken-down motorist. Vehicle recovery operators can also get to broken down motorists in emergency areas on smart motorways which are safer than working on a hard shoulder as they are set back from the live carriageway.
  • Smart motorways have safety mitigations that are not present on other types of high-speed road, for example variable speed limits and Red X, and we have also worked closely with the recovery industry to develop guidance on safe recovery. This involved carrying out a successful joint exercise to test different recovery scenarios.

Stopped vehicle detection

  • Incident detection is already in place on all smart motorways.
  • Stopped vehicle detection, operational on the M25 and in construction on the M3, uses scanning radar to identify stopped vehicles, set signs and alert our control rooms. It is effective in all weathers and at all levels of traffic.
  • However, this is just one of the systems in place on smart motorways, including CCTV, incident detection, SVD and emergency areas – to keep drivers safe. The stopped vehicle detection system employed to date uses radar technology (radio waves) to detect stationary vehicles on motorways.

Red X signals

  • It has always been an offence to ignore a red X.
  • Police are now able to use cameras as part of the enforcement of red X.

The government offers this advice on how to drive on a smart motorway.

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Steven Nagle
Steven Nagle
8 months ago

They’re no safer….. and certainly no smarter…. and any good they do is nullified by companies pushing drivers to work harder, be on time, longer hours, extra stress, failing to manage risk in the process. To consider them safe is to court insanity. I’ve seen first hand hundreds of times how many lunatics drive along that stretch at 80-100mph and frankly it’s getting worse, not better.

Alan James
Alan James
8 months ago

I was travelling recently on the “smart” section of the M5 south of the M42. A rigid body HCV had experienced a blow-out and luckily had managed to reach one of the refuge lay-bys. All lanes were open and travelling at 70mph or more. By the time I got there a specialist recovery vehicle had arrived to change the HCV’s wheel. However, the lay-by was not long enough to allow both vehicles to park in it easily and the back end of the recovery vehicle was jutting out about a metre or more into the ‘slow’ lane. Traffic was having… Read more »

Jeff Russell
Jeff Russell
8 months ago

I have recently had a near miss when a car broke down in a ‘Smart’ section of the on the M25. No warnings were given and the view ahead was blocked by a large goods vehicle. I would not want to be in a broken down car on a busy motorway waiting for someone to spot me on their CCTV system. Smart they are not, and definitely not safe as a normal motorway. They are just a cheaper way of getting an extra running lane on a motorway.

Phil J
Phil J
8 months ago

Don’t know why they don’t stick to the smart motorways that have a hard shoulder which is only live running when there’s heavy traffic. The heavy traffic leads to opening up of the hard shoulder for use AND ties in with a reduced speed limit, which should reduce the risk for anyone having to stop on the hard shoulder even if it’s running live. There are parts of the M62 like that. Makes more sense than 4 open lanes, where one is only closed when the CCTV operator (who has probably got too many cameras to monitor) finally spots an… Read more »

7 months ago

Just read all the Gov UK / Highways England advice.
Quite complicated, there are three types for a start, and seems to assume all drivers’ education will magically be upgraded too, AND the key point is missing: – How does a driver even know they are on a ‘smart’ motorway?
After some miles, and with up to date driver awareness it may become apparent, with the various clues, but no actual obvious distinction at the start of these sections, such as “You are now driving on a SMART motorway. Pay attention to the overhead lane symbols”.
Just not good enough.

3 months ago

If Smart Motorways are unsafe the argument is 70mph dual carriageways without hard shoulders are unsafe. So we should reduce the A2, A6, A1 etc. To lower speed or build emergency lay-bys. You can’t have it both ways.

3 months ago
Reply to  Phil

The A34 has had and continues to have numerous crashes, often fatal when trucks hit stationary queuing traffic or broken down vehicles. Car drivers are bad enough, but nose to tail on the limiter (56 MPH) truckers without forward vision beyond the next trucks back doors are lethal, even when they have better forward vision some drivers still miss the visual clues.

3 months ago

See video above

I was on M6 driving a 44-ton articulated truck
I kept a long distance from the other lorry
Small car broke down on tha hard shoulder… moment, there was no hard shhoulder.
I had less than a second to make decision who to kill…

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