How safe are smart motorways? Only 48% of motorists say they know how to use them

More than half of UK motorist claim not to understand the rules of smart motorways, according to a poll.

A survey, which was commissioned by road safety charity Brake and breakdown recovery firm Green Flag and quizzed 2,010 UK motorists, has discovered that just 48% know how to use smart motorways and 25% said they don’t know what a smart motorway is.

Approximately 500 miles of motorways in England are ‘smart’ with plans for another 300 miles planned in the next five years.

There are several key rules, which motorists claim not to know.

Rules of smart motorways

  • Never drive in a lane closed by a Red X.

  • Keep to the speed limits shown on the signs.

  • A hard shoulder is always identified by a solid white unbroken line – if there’s no speed limit displayed above it or a Red X is displayed, do not use it except in emergency.

  • A broken white line indicates a normal running lane.

  • If the hard shoulder is being used as an extra lane, use the designated emergency areas for emergencies.

  • If your vehicle experiences difficulties, e.g. warning light, exit the motorway immediately, if you can.

  • If you break down, put your hazard lights on.

  • Most breakdowns are preventable – keep your car well maintained, check your tyres and make sure you have enough fuel for your journey.

Click here for the government’s guide on ow to drive on a smart motorway.

38 deaths in 5 years

In January SHP reported that, for the first time, the total number of deaths on smart motorways has been reported, with figures showing thirty-eight deaths between 2014 and 2019.

The government told the BBC’s Panorama programme that thirty-eight people have been killed on smart motorways since they were introduced in the UK in 2014.

They have faced heavy criticism because a lack of hard shoulder means motorists can be trapped in a ‘live’ lane amongst speeding traffic in the event of a breakdown.

The figures showed that in the five years before the road was converted into a smart motorway there were just 72 near misses. In the five years after, there have been 1,485.

In response, a Highways England spokesperson said: “Any death on our roads is one too many, and our deepest sympathies remain with the family and friends of those who lost their lives.

“The Transport Secretary has asked the Department for Transport to carry out, at pace, an evidence stocktake to gather the facts about smart motorway safety. We are committed to safety and are supporting the Department in its work on this.”

‘Jason and Alexandru’s death’s prove these motorways are anything but smart’

Claire Mercer lost her husband in an accident on the M1, after the 16-mile stretch was converted into a smart motorway.

An inquest has heard that the deaths could have been avoided, if there had been a hard shoulder.

Coroner David Urpeth recorded a verdict of unlawful killing and added that he would be writing to Highways England and the transport secretary asking for a review.

He added that smart motorways without a hard shoulder carry “an ongoing risk of future deaths”.

Highways England said it was “addressing many of the points raised”.

Highways England has previously claimed that smart motorways have improved the safety of British motorways. The new roads use technology as a way of minimising congestion and easing the flow of traffic.

The organisation said that a risk assessment of the design for the latest generation of smart motorways estimated an 18% reduction in risk, compared to a conventional motorway.

Mike Wilson, Chief Highway Engineer, also asserted that there was evidence proving that smart motorways were improving safety as ‘the first nine of the latest generation of smart motorways have reduced casualty rates by more than 25%’.

Despite their claims to increased safety, their own report highlights that drivers are three-times more likely to break down in a live lane when the hard shoulder has been removed.

In the 10 months after the modification of a 16-mile stretch of the M1, four people were killed after being hit by oncoming traffic, as there was no hard shoulder to protect them. Jason Mercer was one of the recent victims as he, and another driver Alexandru Murgeanu, were hit by a lorry after thier car broke down in the new ‘live lane’.

Following the introduction of the live lane, Highways England implemented the ‘Red X’, a signal for drivers to switch lanes if an immobilised vehicle appeared. However, on the day that Mercer and Mergeanu were caught stranded, no ‘Red X’ warning appeared according to reports.

Prior to this incident, a 62-year-old woman and an 83-year-old man were also killed in smart motorway-related incidents. The cause of all four deaths was their failure to reach an Emergency Relief Area on the 16-mile Northbound stretch of the M1 after the hard shoulder was scrapped.

How safe are smart motorways?

Jason Mercer’s wife Claire is suing Highways England for corporate manslaughter, claiming the organisation failed to provide sufficient protection. A report found that on average it takes CCTV operators twenty minutes to spot stranded vehicles before closing the lane. “These tragic deaths show the systems have failed repeatedly,” said Claire.

Edmund King, President of the AA, was shocked at the findings. “It shows just how dangerous it can be breaking down in a live lane. Ultimately, until you are found by the camera you are a sitting duck. Expecting someone to wait in a dangerous and life-threatening position for 20 minutes is simply inexcusable.”

In 2018, Highways England admitted that the speed limits they imposed don’t necessarily reflect real-time traffic conditions. If congestion doesn’t build up as expected, motorists are sometimes told to drive 30 mph below the normal speed limit despite roads being clear.

Highways England plan to nearly double the smart motorway network from 416 to 788 miles by 2025. Claire Mercer argued that the government and the motorway company were in ‘collective madness’ as they failed to recognise the tragedy caused by smart motorways.

MP Tracey Crouch called for the roll-out of smart motorways to be halted amid concerns that the replacement of the hard shoulder posed safety concerns for drivers and breakdown services.

The Police also disagree with the system as the force has complained that there is nowhere to pull over reckless drivers. With no hard shoulder, officers are forced to drive for ‘miles and miles’ before apprehending culprits. Emergency services also state that the time taken to get to the scene of an accident is now considerably longer as they have to battle through stationary traffic when they would, in the past, have been able to use the hard shoulder.

Sally Jacobs lost her husband on a section of smart motorway when he was crushed getting out of his car. She told the BBC that it took the emergency services one-hour to get to the scene because there was no hard-shoulder to enable them access the scene quickly.

PC Stuart King, Motorway Police, said that “[they] have to force [their] way through the small gap between lorries and cars whereas before [they] would use the hard-shoulder to get there much quicker, no we’re” in the even of an accident.

In 2016, a worker was been fatally injured on the M1 smart motorway site in Northamptonshire.

Work that involves driving is reported to be high risk. The transport and storage industry is one of the most high-risk industries in the UK. Inevitably, workers that drive for a living are at higher risk of being involved in a road accident and moving vehicles if one of the biggest hazards related to work fatalities.

The safety of smart motorways has been disputed by many. Highways England continues to defend the new road system, claiming it tackles the issues of congestion and improves the safety of motorists. However, given the alarming number of smart-motorway incidents in the past year, should something change?