South Yorkshire police chief 'not convinced' smart motorways are safer

Dr Alan Billings
Dr Alan Billings
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The police and crime commissioner for South Yorkshire has expressed concern over Highways England's refusal to accept that smart motorways can be dangerous in a letter to the widow of a Rotherham man killed on the M1 near Sheffield.

Dr Alan Billings wrote in the letter to Jason Mercer's widow Claire that Highways England was repeatedly warned that controversial plans to turn the M1 into a four-lane carriageway would put lives at risk.

Mr Mercer was one of four people who lost their lives between junction 31 and 35a after the hard shoulder on the M1 near Sheffield last year after the hard shoulder was turned into a live lane.

Mr Mercer was involved in a minor crash in June 2019, but when he got out of his car to exchange details he and the other driver, Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, were hit by a lorry. Both died at the scene.

Dr Billings wrote to Mrs Mercer after he held a meeting with Highways England, a national newspaper reported.

He wrote how "it seems strange to me" that Highways England insists smart motorways are safer, adding: "If you break down on one of these you do so in a live lane, and that must make you immediately vulnerable.

"They did say that emergency vehicles took a little longer to reach collisions where there was no hard shoulder. I am not convinced about the smart motorways being safer..."

He said "prior to the introduction of smart motorways in South Yorkshire", David Crompton, the chief constable at the time, and the then police and crime commissioner Shaun Wright, "raised serious concerns" about losing the hard shoulder on the motorway.

Mr Crompton said when the M1 smart motorway plans were introduced in 2014: "At some point we believe that these arrangements will be contributory factors in a serious accident or even someone dying."

Transport secretary Grant Shapps has launched a review of smart motorways.

"Mrs Mercer, said: "I hope Mr Shapps has the strength of character to make Highways England see sense and prevent more deaths."

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.

"We are supporting the Department for Transport in the work it is currently undertaking to gather the facts about smart motorway safety.”

In November 2019 the boss of Highways England admitted that smart motorways with a hard shoulder only used at busy times are “too complicated for people to use."

Chief executive Jim O’Sullivan told MPs it will not build any more smart motorways “because too many motorists do not understand them”.

Mr O’Sullivan said drivers are confused about when they can use the hard shoulder and when it is closed to non-emergency traffic.

He explained to the Commons Transport Select Committee that some hard shoulders on smart motorways are only open to running traffic during the morning and evening peaks but this catches out some drivers when their routine changes.

Smart motorways have been developed as a way of increasing capacity and reducing congestion without the more costly process of widening roads.