38 deaths have taken place on smart motorways in the last 5 years, a freedom of information request has revealed.
The BBC’s Panorama reported that near misses on one stretch of the M25 have increased 20-fold since it was converted to smart motorway in April 2014, and that a warning sign on the same section of road has been out of action for almost a year.
In 2019 we wrote that 1 in 4 UK drivers felt smart motorways to be unsafe, based on research by Kwik Fit. Smart motorways are designed to ease congestion, with live control and more technology, to manage traffic and improve motorway performance. But since their inception, smart motorways have come under criticism for a lack of sufficient safety features and an infrequency of refuge areas.
The new information revealed by Panorama, coming as a group of MPs publish a damning report, throws this concern into relief once again.
Sir Mike Penning, who signed off the expansion of the smart motorway network when he was Minister for Transport, was part of the all-party group of MPs who published a report on smart motorways earlier this month. Penning has strongly criticised Highways England for “casually ignoring commitments” around safety systems, including the Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) system which has only been implemented on around 6% of the smart motorway network.
The government have announced that the SVD system, which uses radar to detect stationary vehicles, is now due to be rolled out across all stretches of smart motorway within the next three years.
19,000 motorists a year get stuck in a live lane after breaking down on the motorway. Emergency Refuge Areas, which when the first smart motorway section was trialled on the M42 were every 500m, are sometimes as far apart as one and a half miles on newer stretches of smart motorway – another issue which has come in for repeated criticism from former transport ministers.
Highways England is now facing a police investigation regarding the deaths. The Telegraph has reported that Claire Mercer, the widow of Jason Mercer who was killed in June 2019 on a stretch of smart motorway, made formal allegations of criminal corporate manslaughter against Highways England on Monday.
Grant Shapps, the current transport secretary, speaking to Panorama said that he was ‘very unhappy’ that there were so many different types of motorway, saying it was ‘too confusing’. He added, ‘we absolutely have to have these as safe or safer than regular motorways, or we shouldn’t have them at all.’
It is understood that a government review in the coming weeks will recommend ending ‘dynamic lane’ use, i.e. the switching on and off of access to the hard shoulder as a live lane.
The current advice for motorists if they become stranded in a live lane on a smart motorway is to stay in the vehicle, keep their seatbelt on, put on their hazards and all lights, and dial 999. If you can reach an emergency refuge area safely, you should do so. Only if you are in the nearside lane and can safely exit the vehicle on the passenger side should you attempt to leave the car. But as the Panorama show revealed, this advice feels insufficient when the safety of the motorway function itself is in question.
Update: the government published its plans to improve smart motorway safety in February 2020. We look at the proposed measures in a follow-up article here.