Urgent review needed into the safety of smart motorways
Personal injury experts at Hampson Hughes say a coroner’s call for urgent review into smart motorways is “long overdue” as accident rates continue to rise across England.
Acting Senior Coroner David Urpeth made the national headlines this week with his frank criticism that “a lack of hard shoulder” contributed to the tragic death of two motorists in a road traffic collision on the M1 in June 2019. Following the inquest, he has urged Highways England and Grant Shapps MP, the Secretary of State for Transport, to hold an urgent review into smart motorways, which have killed 40 people in similar circumstances in the past five years.
Our Head of Civil Litigation, Niamh Wilson, says this action couldn’t come soon enough, as the rate of smart motorways accidents are continuing to increase and, sadly, result in fatalities in most cases. Niamh talks us through some of the factors contributing to this tragic rise and why the Government needs to take urgent action.
WHAT ARE SMART MOTORWAYS?
Put simply, smart motorways are motorways which allow traffic to use the hard shoulder as a live lane to help reduce traffic congestion. There are two types: all-lane running, where the hard shoulder has permanently become the inside lane; and dynamic, where the hard shoulder is only sometimes used by moving traffic during busy periods.
All smart motorways have overhead electronic signs to signal emergency lane closures and reduced speed limits to manage congestion. These “smart” computers constantly monitor the road and can change the speed limit on their own, as well as signal when a lane has been closed. It has been demonstrated on multiple occasions, however, that this technology does not always run smoothly and, tragically as a result, lives have been lost. Accidents which potentially could have been prevented.
HOW SAFE ARE SMART MOTORWAYS?
Highways England have confirmed that it can take an average of 17 minutes to spot a broken down vehicle on a lane running ‘smart’ motorways when Stationary Vehicle Detection (SVD) systems are not in place. Shockingly this potentially life-saving SVD technology is only currently available on 83.6 miles of motorway, and only around 26.8 miles over the last year, according to analysis by the AA. The remaining 523 miles is to be completed in 2023. As AA president Edmund King rightly stated: “Until you are found by the camera, you are a sitting duck.”
Highway England’s own analysis shows that stopping in a live lane of an all lane running motorway more than tripled the danger of an accident, compared to if you stopped on a traditional motorway with a hard shoulder. So, the question remains: why has nothing being done to address these serious safety concerns? As Acting Senior Coroner David Urpeth stated in this latest tragedy, smart motorways continue to present an “ongoing risk of future deaths”.
GUIDANCE ON HOW TO USE SMART MOTORWAYS
Critics have been warning about the dangers of smart motorways ever since they were first introduced – but there is still no clear guidance on how to use these motorways. In fact, the current guidance on gov.uk on how to drive safely and legally on England’s smart motorways was withdrawn on 9 December 2020 and is yet to be updated (as of 22 Jan 2021).
Our Head of Civil Litigation, Niamh Wilson, said: “Lack of general awareness and the absence of reviews or appropriate action from the authorities, alongside the growing number of heavy goods vehicles on motorways are all contributing to the dangers posed by smart motorways.
“If SVP technology – which detects stationary motorists in live lanes automatically in 20 seconds – had been rolled out as promised across all smart motorways, then we may be seeing a difference picture. But, as it stands they are too risky, too dangerous and overall, no benefits they offer outweigh the risks involved. The fact that the Government has failed to update its own guidance around how to use smart motorways does little to alleviate public fears about the dangers they pose.
“We have dealt with many heartbroken families over the years who have lost loved ones as a result of road traffic accidents and one accident which can be prevented, is one too many.
“People will always prioritise safety over all else and we urge Highways England and the Government to do the same and take long overdue action to review the proposed 18-point plan in light of the most recent ruling and consider, not only why some of these measures are not yet in place, but does it actually go far enough to make our smart motorways safe.”