In the Commons today, Rotherham MP Sarah Champion - who has been campaigning alongside widow Claire Mercer against the controversial roads - told Grant Shapps that before the 10-mile stretch of the M1 where Mrs Mercer’s husband Jason was killed in 2019 was converted to a smart motorway, there had been no reported incidents of cars being hit on the hard shoulder for three years.
But since the hard shoulder was changed into a working lane, she said there had been “an average of 68 breakdowns a month in live lanes”.
Ms Champion said: “Each of these incidents has the potential to end in a tragedy.”
But Mr Shapps said Highways England was continuing with the roll out of smart motorways.
“We have committed £500m to ensure these motorways are as safe as possible,” he said.
“Smart motorways have been under development since 2001 under the Blair-John Prescott Government. I think I am the first Secretary of State in 12 to carry out the stocktake and review, and I will not rest until these motorways are as safe as possible.”
In response to a written question, Ms Champion discovered that in just one month - March 2018 - there were 102 breakdown icndients just on the stretch of the M1 being discussed.
Speaking after the exchange Ms Champion said: “I was shocked and terrified by the sheer number of incidents in which vehicles stopped in live lanes on just this one small section of the smart motorway network.
"Each of these incidents could have resulted in more lives lost on these dangerous roads.
"By removing the hard shoulder, vehicles becoming stranded in moving traffic is made immeasurably more likely. The Government says it’s committed to rolling out new technology and safety improvements, but all that these achieve is to marginally reduce the huge risks they’ve created by removing the vital refuge that the hard shoulder provides.”
She said: “If the Government’s priority was really the safety of motorists, it could introduce safety features like stopped vehicle detection and overhead gantries without also removing the hard shoulder. Instead, they continue to press ahead with their so-called smart motorways, increasing capacity on the cheap by gambling with motorists’ lives.
‘Far too many people have lost their lives already. Too many families have lost loved ones. It is high time the Government listened to campaigners, motoring organisations and bereaved families and abandoned these deadly roads."
In the Commons, Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Jim McMahon said: “Last week, I met some of the families of those who have died on smart motorways. I heard the pain and the devastation of those who have been affected by all-lane-running schemes.”
And he asked Mr Shapps for the latest data on the number of deaths on the road.
But the Transport Secretary said he would not have updated statistics until tomorrow, with the most recent figure being 39 between 2015 and 2019.
Mr Shapps said he shared the public concern over safety on the roads, but Mr McMahon added: “Yesterday, Highways England launched a campaign that encourages drivers to sing a Pet Shop Boys song as a reminder to pull into a refuge. That reduces it down to an insult, insinuating that drivers who became stranded were somehow careless. They were not. They were the victims of an ill-conceived scheme that still leaves people at risk today.”
And he urged Mr Shapps to immediately reinstate the hard shoulder on such roads.
But Mr Shapps said: “I know from the work that has been carried out that the statisticians, who have worked very hard on this, tell us that per one billion miles travelled, which is the way roads are measured, there are about a third more deaths where there are hard shoulders, because one in 12 fatalities actually takes place on a hard shoulder.
He said he shared Mr McMahon’s wish to see the problem fixed but said: “It is important to know that, while I mentioned the 39 deaths on so-called smart motorways, at the same time there were 368 deaths on regular motorways, so it is very important that we take all of these steps.”
Mrs Mercer said today that she “thought it was a spoof” when she saw the Highways England advert featuring two flies advising a driver to “go left” after a warning light activated on his dashboard.
“I thought it was a spoof,” she said.
“They had two people dressed as squashed flies on the windscreen – did they not see the analogy?
“What happened to our loved ones, without going into the details, they weren’t in their vehicles when they were hit.
“This is a silly, bad joke about a serious and hurtful subject.”
Writing on the Smart Motorways Kill Facebook page, she called it a “foul, outrageous advert”.
South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings described Highways England’s campaign as “insensitive” and “provocative”.
He added: “I find it quite extraordinary that Highways England would launch this campaign.
“At the very least I would expect them to wait until the select committee has issued its findings.”
The Commons Transport Select Committee is investigating smart motorway safety.
In the advert, the flies advise the driver to try to leave the motorway at the next junction or stop in an emergency refuse area and then leave the vehicle via the passenger door.
Highways England acting chief executive Nick Harris said: “No-one plans to break down on a motorway, but if the unexpected happens then I want all motorists to know what to do so that they can keep themselves and others safe.
“Everyone wants a safe journey and raising awareness is a vital part of helping to make sure that happens.
“This new campaign and its ‘Go left’ message is designed to deliver crucial information in an accessible way and to help make motorways safer for the people who use them.
“This campaign is just one of the many steps we are taking to invest in our network with safety as our number one priority, doing everything we can to help drivers feel confident on our motorways.”