SMART motorways should be banned in the UK, campaigners have said, warning that a disproportionate number of ethnic minorities are dying on those stretch of roads.
Smart Motorways Kill, a group comprising families who lost loved ones on the network, have launched legal action to get them scrapped. It also wants more awareness to be raised in different languages of how smart motorways work.
The roads have a “live lane” of traffic on the hard shoulder to increase capacity, managing traffic with methods which include variable speed limits.
In the past five years, 38 people have been killed on smart motorways as criticism mounts that because these roads do not have a hard shoulder, drivers who break down on them can be trapped in speeding traffic.
Among the casualties are Dev Naran, eight, who died when his grandfather’s car was hit by a lorry on the hard shoulder of the M6 which was being used by moving traffic in 2018.
In 2017, recovery driver Jamil Ahmed, 36, died after becoming stranded on a smart motorway on the M6.
Last year, Claire Mercer’s husband Jason and Alexandru Murgeanu died when Prezemyslaw Szuba crashed into their vehicles on a section of the M1 without a hard shoulder.
Just 27 per cent of drivers say they know what a smart motorway is, but do not know the rules while driving on it, according to a survey in October by road safety charity Brake as well as breakdown recovery firm Green Flag. And 25 per cent admitted they do not know what a smart motorway is.
Niaz Shazad, from Smart Motorways Kill, told Eastern Eye: “The campaign is really gathering pace now. The judicial review was meant to be in court for June, but unfortunately Covid has delayed that.
“One of the main problems is the expert hasn’t been able to gain access to all the required information needed to compile the detailed and specialised report required for the review. Access is now being arranged, but it has impacted the ready date.
“(Although) High-ranking police officers have (previously) been very vocal in their criticism of smart motorways, recently we received a letter telling us that Claire Mercer’s complaint of corporate manslaughter would not be investigated by the police ‘due to no evidence of a flaw in the smart motorway system’.
“The police as an organisation have said themselves the whole system is flawed. Secondly, in the case highlighted, the live lane was not closed when the obstruction first happened. The lane was only closed after two people were killed.”
The smart motorway network covers around 500 miles in England with a further 300 miles planned by 2025.
Shazad added: “One thing that keeps coming up time and time again is how disproportionately ethnic minorities are represented in the casualty figures on smart motorways.
“This is a clear indication of the lack of effort by Highways England in raising awareness of what these new roads are, the massive fundamental change and how it affects those that use them.
“If this information isn’t getting out to the larger, easier-to-reach communities, then it certainly is not getting to the smaller communities.
“Something that we’re doing to try and help with that is having a professionally worded brief put together and translated into as many different languages as possible and then disseminated around those communities.”
On average, two deaths or serious injuries occur every day on UK motorways.
Smart motorway rules include not driving in lanes below a red X and using the hard shoulder as a live driving lane.
Drivers are also encouraged to use refuge areas in the event of a breakdown or emergency rather than stopping in live lanes. Red Xs appear on overhead gantries as soon as Highways England knows a vehicle has stopped in a live lane.
Ravendrasinh Thakor is a friend of Dev’s mother Meera who has supported her campaign for reforms of smart motorways. He told Eastern Eye: “The fight for change to save lives has not been easy, which is why I had to steer Meera Naran to be tactical and devise a strategy.
“We managed to gain the support of central government and the cabinet to agree to change the highways policy and create a steering group with future consultation for change.
“[On] Highways England, we managed to apply just the right amount of pressure [for them] to then accept [CEO Jim O’Sullivan’s] resignation. We now have a new chair for Highways England, Dipesh Shah, who I hope will perform, listen and be held accountable if need be.”
The government recently pledged a further £5 million investment to improve public information on smart motorways and what to do in an emergency.
Joshua Harris, director of campaigns at Brake, said: “These important findings confirm what we all suspected – drivers are confused about the rules of driving on smart motorways.
“Communication efforts must urgently be stepped up to help avoid more tragic incidents on these roads. We welcome the measures the government has outlined to improve smart motorway safety and urge them to follow this evidence-led approach for all UK roads.
“With more than 75 deaths and serious injuries on our roads, every day, improving road safety must be a priority for this government.”
Highways England said smart motorways are “at least as safe as, or safer than, the conventional motorways they replaced”.
Meanwhile, plans for self-driving cars on UK motorways as soon as 2021 are unlikely to go ahead after insurers warned that government proposals were risking lives and “hugely wrong”.
Cars with the technology to keep in lane, accelerate and brake automatically will be on the road next year, and ministers had proposed that drivers could give up control to their vehicles at 70mph on motorways. But the Association of British Insurers warned the move would be a threat to road users.