Time to scrap smart motorways to save lives – Jayne Dowle

THE Sheffield coroner has called for an urgent review of smart motorways after an inquest heard that the deaths of two men on a stretch of the M1 near Sheffield could have been avoided.

Is it time to outlaw smart motorways? Columnist Jayne Dowle makes the case.

Hang on a minute. Didn’t the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, commission an urgent review last year following a surge in deaths after the smart motorways programme was rolled out nationwide?

At least 38 people have lost their lives on stretches of smart motorway in the last six years.

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I’ve checked and he actually did. As a result, new safety measures were introduced in July 2020 as part of the Government’s Smart Motorway Evidence Stocktake and Action Plan.

Widow Claire Mercer arrives at Sheffield Town Hall for the inquest into the deaths of her husband, Jason Mercer, and Alexandru Murgeanu, who died when they stopped on a section of smart motorway on the M1 near Sheffield after a minor collision and were then hit by a lorry.

The review came up with 18 ideas to improve safety. Key recommendations including rescuing stranded motorists within 10 minutes of their vehicle breaking down.

This slashed the previous average response time of 17 minutes, but it still sounds like an awfully long time to be adrift on a fast-moving motorway.

Also, the review said that the maximum distance between refuge areas should be reduced to no more than a mile. Where this isn’t possible, it was recommended that the number of Highways England traffic officer patrols should be increased.

Sensible in theory, impossible in practice? I’m not sure anyone from the Department for Transport or Highways England has ever broken down on the motorway or experienced a tyre blow-out with a carful of children to immediately shepherd to safety. Or found themselves stranded by the side of a motorway, as I once did, in the middle of the night, waiting for a breakdown truck which fails to arrive.

Widow Claire Mercer arrives at Sheffield Town Hall for the inquest into the deaths of her husband, Jason Mercer, and Alexandru Murgeanu, who died when they stopped on a section of smart motorway on the M1 near Sheffield after a minor collision and were then hit by a lorry.

It’s clear that this review didn’t go far enough. There are many people, especially the bereaved loved ones of road traffic accident victims, who would like to see smart motorways outlawed altogether.

And now Coroner David Urpeth has added his voice of authority to their cause, saying unequivocally that smart motorways without a hard shoulder carry “an ongoing risk of future deaths”. He has promised to write to Mr Shapps to ask him to address the matter urgently.

On the stretch of the M1 where the crash took place in June 2019, the hard shoulder had been replaced by an active lane to create a so-called ‘smart’ motorway.

Rotherham man Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, a Romanian national living in Mansfield, died when Prezemyslaw Szuba crashed his lorry into their vehicles. The drivers had got out to exchange details following a minor collision. Both were hit by the lorry and died at the scene.

Claire Mercer with her husband Jason who was killed in an accient on a stretch of smart motorway on the M1 in South Yorkshire.

Szuba, 40, from Hull, was jailed last year after admitting causing their deaths by careless driving.

Sgt Mark Brady, who oversees major collision investigations for South Yorkshire Police, told the inquest: “Had there been a hard shoulder, had Jason and Alexandru pulled on to the hard shoulder, my opinion is that Mr Szuba would have driven clean past them.”

Mr Mercer’s widow, Claire, who has campaigned passionately for the abolition of smart motorways, cried in court when the coroner stated that the lack of a hard shoulder had contributed to her husband’s death.

It was a welcome vindication of her determination to make the Government and Highways England recognise the human cost of the smart motorways programme.

The justification, long-held, is that using the hard shoulder as an extra lane keeps traffic flowing and reduces congestion. It also saves the Government money and is not as disruptive in planning and environmental terms.

I can see the logic, but rolling it out leaves little room for human interpretation. Speaking to reporters after the inquest, Claire Mercer pointed out that many drivers have precious 
little understanding of the procedures they’re supposed to follow should 
they break down or meet with an accident .

And although – in normal times – I drive thousands of motorway miles a year, I must admit that I would probably be one of them. Would you? Can you say, without a shadow of a doubt, that you would know exactly what to do to stay safe?

As part of the review last year, Mr Shapps offered £5m to fund campaigns to give drivers relevant information, offer recovery firms extra training, increase the number of traffic signs and make refuge areas more visible.

I’m not sure I’ve noticed any of the above, but then again, I haven’t been very far these past few months.

And that’s another thing. If the biggest justification for smart motorways was to reduce congestion, won’t this be irrelevant now we’re working from home more and travelling less?

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