Are Highways England addressing smart motorway safety concerns?
Updated: Dec 7, 2021
The safety of smart motorways has hit the news again this week, after an inquest heard the deaths of two men on a converted stretch of the M1 could have been avoided.
Smart motorways use variable speed limits and hard shoulder running to manage traffic and tackle stop-start congestion.
The two men – Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu – died in 2019 when a lorry crashed into their vehicles (via BBC News) on a stretch of the M1 near Sheffield where the hard shoulder has been replaced by an active lane.
The crash happened after a collision between Mr Mercer and Mr Murgeanu. When the pair got out to exchange details they were hit by the lorry, and both died at the scene.
Sgt Mark Brady, who oversees major collision investigations for South Yorkshire Police, told the hearing he believed the incident could have been avoided had there been a hard shoulder.
Coroner David Urpeth recorded a verdict of unlawful killing at Sheffield Town Hall, saying that smart motorways without a hard shoulder carry “an ongoing risk of future deaths”.
Mr Urpeth added he would be writing to Highways England and the transport secretary asking for a review.
Highways England said it was “addressing many of the points raised”.
Smart motorways – where are we at?
Smart motorways have polarised opinion since they were first introduced in 2006.
Until last year, there were two types of smart motorway used in the UK. The first, often referred to as ‘dynamic’, is where the hard shoulder is opened to traffic during busy periods. The second is where the hard shoulder is open all the time.
Most of the controversy relates to safety, despite Highways England maintaining they are as safe as the wider motorway network.
The Government and Highways England have made a number of changes to smart motorways since the deaths of Mr Mercer and Mr Murgeanu in June 2019.
In October 2019, the Government launched a review into the safety of the schemes, with transport secretary Grant Shapps acknowledging that ministers had ‘concerns’.
The culmination of the five-month evidence stocktake was a new package of safety measures, the most significant of which was the end for dynamic smart motorways.
The action plan addressed other controversial issues, such as the time taken to reach broken down vehicles in live lanes and the distance between emergency refuge areas.
The plan pledges to speed up the deployment of ‘stopped vehicle detection’ – a radar-based system which spots stationary vehicles – so that it is installed across the entire smart motorway network within 36 months.
It also sets out ambitions to reduce the distance between emergency refuge areas to three quarters of a mile, where feasible, so that motorists should typically reach one every 45 seconds at 60mph.
The maximum spacing will be one mile.
At the time, Mr Shapps said the action plan will allow drivers to retain the benefits of smart motorways – while addressing the concerns that have been identified.
In a statement issued following the inquest into the deaths of Mr Mercer and Mr Murgeanu, reported by BBC News, Highways England said it was already addressing many of the points raised by the coroner “as published in the Government’s Smart Motorway Evidence Stocktake and Action Plan of March 2020”.
“We will carefully consider any further comments raised by the coroner once we receive the report,” it added.