The UK’s smart motorways are once again under scrutiny as a Sheffield coroner has declared them a major contributing factor in a fatal accident on the M1.
Two men were killed on a stretch of the M1 in South Yorkshire when a lorry driver crashed into the pair as they were exchanging details after an accident. The hard shoulder was at the time serving as the inside lane on a section of smart motorway, in 2009.
The driver of the lorry was jailed last year after pleading guilty to death by careless driving, but the latest inquest has ruled that the lack of a proper hard shoulder was also a significant factor in the tragedy. Coroner David Urpeth said smart motorways without a proper hard shoulder carry an “ongoing risk of future deaths”.
The crash was one of a number of accidents that have taken place on the active inside lane of a smart motorway. In September 2018, Naris Begum died when her stranded vehicle was hit by another driver, again on the M1 in South Yorkshire. In that case, the coroner determined that Highways England had not closed the lane to traffic in the 16 minutes leading up to the impact, and then took a further six minutes to shut it down. The Daily Mail reported in November 2020 that 44 people have died on smart motorways in the previous five years.
Highways England has said it will “carefully consider” any further comments raised by the coroner after the latest inquest, but the news will add to the concern of motorists who view smart motorways as unsafe – particularly given safety concerns have been raised by motoring organisations including the AA and RAC since their introduction.
Smart motorways are required to have a small refuge every 1.5 miles, and overhead gantries can warn when a lane is closed, but delays can occur before warnings are displayed when a lane is obstructed. And as safety bodies have repeatedly noted, drivers are rarely able to choose where their car may break down or where to pull over after an accident.
For drivers of classic vehicles, smart motorways are an ongoing concern. Motorway speeds can demand more of drivetrains and running gear than low-speed driving. Older vehicles designed before the 1996 introduction of Euro NCAP vehicle safety assessments – which have helped improve occupant and pedestrian protection – lack modern crash structures and active and passive safety features that might at least offer some protection from other traffic in the event of an accident.
In 2019, an RAC survey highlighted the shortcomings of smart motorways, after 23 per cent of drivers admitted to disregarding the red X indicating a lane is closed to traffic.
Nicholas Lyes, the RAC’s head of roads policy, called on Highways England to accelerate safety improvements to smart motorways. “Sadly, there appears to have been precious little progress with retrofitting [of stopped vehicle detection technology] to date considering this was announced last March. While Highways England is considering a national programme to install more SOS areas on the existing network, we’d prefer them to commit to this fully so all refuge areas are consistent distances apart.”
In the event of a vehicle breaking down, Highways England advises stranded motorists and passengers to exit a vehicle on the passenger side, and to remain behind the barrier at a safe distance from the stranded vehicle.