Are smart motorways a smart idea when it comes to public safety?

The Government accept that public confidence in respect of the safety of smart motorways is low.

By David Withers
Thursday, 12th August 2021, 12:00 am

The Department for Transport and Highways England maintain that smart motorways are at least as safe as normal motorways, despite the fact that there is no hard shoulder during busy periods.

The Government intend to roll out smart motorways across the rest of the country.

David Withers.

Irwin Mitchell represents the family of Nargis Begum, from Sheffield, who died on the M1 near Woodall Services.

We also represent Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason, also died on the M1 near Sheffield, and we have taken a look at smart motorways and what is next for improving safety on our roads.

The lawful requirement to protect life

All public authorities in the United Kingdom are under a lawful authority, pursuant to the Human Rights Act 1998, to ensure that everyone's right to life is protected by law.

Traffic on the M1 before junction 33.

The requirement states: "Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law.

"No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law."

Concerns raised by coroners after avoidable smart motorways deaths

There have been increasing concerns raised about the safety of smart motorways.

In February 2021, a Coroner referred Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service to consider whether corporate manslaughter charges were appropriate.

This was following the tragic death of Nargis Begum.

Nargis Begum, 62, died on the M1 in South Yorkshire in September 2018.

Mrs Begum, from Sheffield, a mother-of-five and grandmother-of-nine, was in a Nissan Qashqai driven by her husband which broke down on the M1 near Woodall Services.

My colleague, Chris Kardahji, is supporting the family to seek justice. The outcome of that referral is awaited.

Another colleague, Helen Smith, is representing Claire Mercer.

Her husband, Jason, and Alexandru Murgreanu were killed when they were knocked down by a lorry shortly after a minor collision on an all-lanes running (ALR) motorway – roads which have no hard shoulder – near Sheffield.

Claire is urging other people to speak out about their experiences of safety on the controversial roads

Four coroners have now written reports warning about the potential for future avoidable deaths to occur as a result of smart motorways.

The intention to include emergency refuge areas

The Department for Transport (DfT) strategic roads, economics and statistics director, Jill Adam recently gave evidence to the Commons Transport Select Committee inquiry into the roads.

She indicated that hundreds of millions of pounds could be spent retrofitting existing smart motorways with emergency refuge areas.

Smart motorways: Where next?

We all want to see our country prosper economically insofar as possible but not at the expense of avoidable deaths on our roads.

If a driver is travelling in four lanes, with vehicles travelling at 70 miles per hour, and the vehicle starts to come to a halt with nowhere to go, one can only imagine the absolute fear that the occupants of the vehicle, some of whom may include young children, must have.

It is not so much a matter of data but a matter of common sense. We know that vehicles break down.

We have seen the hard shoulder be used on normal motorways.

If a vehicle breaks down on a smart motorway, the occupants of the vehicle simply cannot pull over anywhere safely.

This exposes them to a grave danger of death or serious injury, which is avoidable.

If the Government is now intending to expend hundreds of millions on emergency refuge areas, one is left reflecting whether smart motorways have really been worthwhile when compared to the supposed economic benefits.

To be safe, there would need to be many emergency refuge areas as one cannot predict where a vehicle will break down.

The alternative course of action is to invest more in our roads.

We can build more roads, with hard shoulders. We can improve our transport links across the country, albeit in a safe way with a hard shoulder.

We can increase the width of existing road so that the hard shoulder can remain. We can encourage car sharing.

The debate really comes down to avoidable deaths v further economic prosperity for our country.

It is difficult to see how the Government can press on and roll out further smart motorways against the backdrop of its lawful duty under the Human Rights Act 1998, four damming reports from coroners after avoidable deaths, and the increasing awareness and concern of the public about the dangers of smart motorways.

There are better ways than removing the hard shoulder which is a lifeline to those in trouble on our motorways, when they need it the most.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting families following road collisions at our dedicated serious injury section.

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