Widow to continue fight for return of hard shoulders after smart motorway rollout paused

A Yorkshire widow whose husband was killed on a smart motorway has welcomed the Government’s plan to pause their roll out - but will continue her fight to end the use of existing ones and bring back hard shoulders.

Ministers announced yesterday they will halt the building of more all-lane-running motorways while further safety reviews take place, while existing ones with no hard shoulder will have more emergency refuges installed along with extra technology to detect stranded vehicles.

Rotherham’s Claire Mercer has cautiously welcomed the news following her long-running campaign against smart motorways after her husband Jason was killed alongside Alexandru Murgreanu in June 2019 when they were knocked down by a lorry shortly after a minor collision on the M1 near Meadowhall in South Yorkshire.

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The pair had pulled over to the roadside as far as possible – and yet the lane was not closed to traffic until after the second, fatal collision.

Claire Mercer wants to see all-lane-running motorways scrapped following the death of her husband Jason on one.

Mrs Mercer said: “There is hardly a day that goes by without another story about a crash in which someone is injured or killed or story about a near miss on a smart motorway.

“What happened to Jason and Alexandru wasn’t just an isolated and tragic incident. People continue to be killed or injured on smart motorways and will continue to be without decisive and lasting action.

“While any measure to improve road safety is welcome I feel that this is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m determined not to let Jason’s death be in vain. Each casualty isn’t just a statistic. Behind every number is a story of human tragedy and how families are torn apart and grieving relatives are often left to pick up the pieces.

“I’ll continue to campaign for the reinstatement of hard shoulders as I believe this is what will improve road safety more than any retrofitting of technology.”

Claire and Jason Mercer

Lawyers at Irwin Mitchell, which is representing Mrs Mercer as well as the family of Nargis Begum who was killed in similar circumstances on the M1 near Sheffield in September 2018, said the Government’s announcement was a step in the right direction.

Helen Smith, the specialist public law and human rights lawyer at Irwin Mitchell representing Claire, said: “The issues around safety and smart motorways are well documented and we continue to hear more and more first-hand accounts of how people’s lives have been changed forever following collisions on these controversial roads.

“The announcement vindicates many concerns that accept the rollout of ALRs was premature and tangible action is needed to improve road safety.

“While Claire believes this is a step in the right direction she believes more still needs to be done to stop families being torn apart because of smart motorway collisions. We do not rule out further legal action.

“We obtained expert evidence from a very experienced highways engineer, Sarah Simpson of Royal HaskoningDHV which was submitted to the Transport Committee. This alongside our submissions and other evidence helped produce these recommendations.

“We continue to investigate evidence around existing ALRs and concerns over their safety and we are in agreement with campaigners like Claire who argue that much more needs to be done before the public can be reassured that such roads don’t compromise safety to an unacceptable standard.

“It shouldn’t take the experiences of people like Claire and others we represent to force action and deliver safer roads for all.”

South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings said further action needs to be taken by the Government on the issue.

“Whilst this is a positive move from the government, it simply doesn’t go far enough.

“For as long as I have been PCC I have been concerned about the type of smart motorway we have in South Yorkshire between junctions 32 and 35a of the M1.

“South Yorkshire police expressed grave reservations about safety when they were first mooted. I believe they are inherently unsafe and I fully support Clare Mercer in her campaign to stop them.

“I often hear from members of the public about how they feel anxious using these stretches of smart motorway. We have not only had fatalities but also many near misses. While collisions are recorded there is no information on near misses.

“If there is a collision and traffic comes to a halt, a smart motorway presents a huge challenge for recovery workers when there is no hard shoulder to drive along and they have to navigate through stationary vehicles. HGV drivers have told me how hazardous it is trying to navigate around stationary vehicles in a live lane.

“There is a time lag between a vehicle breaking down and a controller closing the lane by putting a red cross on the overhead gantries. That time gap is a period of great peril for anyone who has broken down or anyone who is travelling behind them in the same lane and at speed.

“I welcome the government’s decision to review the safety of smart motorways, but continue to urge them to abandon the scheme altogether. We should be designing dangers out of roads not building them in.”

That view was shared by Rotherham MP Sarah Champion, another long-standing critic of smart motorways.

She said: “While I welcome the decision to pause the rollout of new smart motorways, existing schemes remain fundamentally unsafe. These deadly schemes should never have been commissioned without proper safety data in place.

“Despite this welcomed U-turn from the Government, the reality is that they pressed ahead with a rapid rollout in the face of serious concerns from motoring organisations, campaigners and Members of Parliament.

“Tragically, the inevitable result of the Government ignoring evidence on safety of smart motorways has been needless deaths.

“Investment in improved safety technology will not remove the colossal risk to motorists the Government have created. The fact remains that motorways without the permanent hard shoulder will always risk cars becoming stranded in live lanes with potentially catastrophic results.’

“I was deeply disappointed and confused that the Transport Select Committee accepted the Government’s view that reintroducing the hard shoulder could increase risks for motorists, based on little more than the word of ministers.’

“I remain firmly of the view that reverting motorways to traditional operation, with permanent hard shoulders in place, is the only reasonable course if safety is truly the Government’s priority.

“There is no option to increase capacity on the cheap that doesn’t gamble with the lives of motorists and I will continue to campaign for these lethal roads to be abandoned.”

Royal Society backs Government's call

The Government’s decision has been welcomed by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

Road safety officer Rebecca Needham said: “We welcome the publication of the Department for Transport’s response to the House of Commons Transport Committee report and the decision to pause the roll-out of smart motorways. During the evidence gathering stage of the report, RoSPA provided an expert witness and made a number of recommendations to improve the safety of smart motorways.

“RoSPA has been calling for an increase in the number of emergency refuge areas on ‘all lane running’ (ALR) smart motorways and we are pleased to see that the Department for Transport has committed to a retrofit a further 150 emergency refuge areas to existing schemes.

“It is vitally important that a programme to retrofit emergency refuges on ALR motorways is put in place, because between 2015 and 2019, 39 people died on UK smart motorways, according to figures from National Highways

“Currently on ALR motorways, the emergency refuges are spaced at up to 1.6 miles apart. Today’s report adopts RoSPA’s recommendation to reduce the distance between safe stopping places on ALR motorways to a maximum of 1,500 metres and down to 1,000 metres (0.75 miles) where physically possible.

“RoSPA also embraces the recognition in the report that further effort is required to better inform motorists about how to safely navigate smart motorways and we look forward to supporting this."

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