Death toll on smart motorways hits 'record high'

Rebecca Speare-Cole
·3-min read
Vehicles make their way past a sign saying 'Refuge areas for emergency use only' on the southbound carriageway near Bagshot in Surrey where the M3 has been converted into a smart motorway with the hard shoulder rebuilt as an additional lane. Picture date: Wednesday January 20, 2021.
Vehicles make their way past a sign saying 'Refuge areas for emergency use only' on the southbound carriageway near Bagshot in Surrey where the M3 has been converted into a smart motorway with the hard shoulder rebuilt as an additional lane. (PA)

The number of people killed on smart motorways has reached a record high.

The motorways, where hard shoulders are used as traffic lanes, saw 14 fatalities in 2019, according to figures from the Department of Transport seen by the Sunday Times.

The newspaper reported that the data was not published in the DfT’s annual report on road casualties.

The death toll on smart motorways in 2019 came as a record high, after 11 deaths in 2018 and five in 2017.

Read: Are smart motorways safe?

According to the Sunday Times, the true 2019 death toll could be 15 since one passenger died after spending seven weeks in hospital as a result of a smart motorway collision.

The rising death toll comes as the smart motorway network expands across the UK, including sections on the M1, M4, M5, M6, M25 and M62.

This covers around 500 miles, with an additional 300 miles planned by 2025.

The roads are designed to increase capacity without the more disruptive and costly process of widening carriageways.

A sign announcing the forthcoming 'smart motorway' on the M4 road in Slough, Berkshire. One of the ways Highways England is increasing capacity is by creating smart motorways.
A sign announcing the forthcoming 'smart motorway' on the M4 road in Slough, Berkshire. One of the ways Highways England is increasing capacity is by creating smart motorways. (PA)

An “evidence stocktake” published by transport secretary Grant Shapps in March 2020 stated that “in most ways” they are as safe or safer than conventional motorways, but the chance of a crash involving a moving vehicle and a stationary vehicle is higher when the hard shoulder is removed.

Families of victims have been campaigning for the government to scrap the network completely amid these safety fears.

Claire Mercer, whose husband, Jason, 44, died on a stretch of the M1 in June 2019, told the Sunday Times: “ People are starting to realise the emergency of it.

"Smart motorways need to be scrapped. We need the hard shoulder back – it is the only way that we will stop this dangerous situation. All motorways need a hard shoulder all of the time.”

Watch: UK government announces plans to make smart motorways safe place for drivers

The force announced it is to examine inquest documents relating to that accident, which saw Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, killed when a lorry driver crashed into their vehicles.

Police are working to establish whether there is any need for "further criminal investigations".

Meanwhile, Dr Alan Billings, South Yorkshire Police and crime commissioner (PCC), recently said a stretch of the M1 in the area that has no hard shoulder poses a "constant danger".

Shapps said earlier this month why he would not scrap the network.

He said: “A lot of people say, ‘Just undo it,’ and I have looked at that. It would require the equivalent land for 700 Wembley stadium-sized football pitches to somehow undo it all.

“We would have to buy people’s homes and destroy acres of green belt. I do not see that there is a route through to simply undoing it. We have to make what is there safe.”

In March, Highways England will launch a publicity campaign to raise awareness for basic safety on smart motorways.

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The organisation said: “At the transport secretary’s request, we are currently preparing a progress report against his evidence stocktake and action plan which will include analysis of latest safety data.”

The DfT said: "It is misleading to draw conclusions on safety based on data for a single year, doing so over a longer period of time provides a more accurate picture.

“Since taking office, the current Secretary of State has expressed his concerns about smart motorways. He has committed £500m to safety improvements and has recently pressed Highways England to further accelerate work. The safety and peace of mind of drivers and passengers using these routes remains our priority.”

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