Smart motorways, a deadly mistake

I’ll start this off by telling you a rather uncomfortable experience I had a few years ago on the M40 near Coventry.

My own uncomfortable experience

It was a bitterly cold December and my Dad was giving me a lift to London so I could complete in the annual British indoor rowing championships at the velodrome. For one reason or another we went in his Vauxhall Combo van. Halfway into the journey, on the M40 just outside Coventry, the cam belt snapped leaving us stranded. Luckily we were both members of the RAC so a quick call to them and they assured us they were on their way. Only it took them eight hours. Eight hours! It wasn’t long till the battery started losing charge and the hazard warning lights started to get dimmer and dimmer. This was a dangerous situation and it was fortunate it didn’t happen to someone more vulnerable or with children in the car. Now imagine a stranded van, for eight hours, with dimming hazard lights on a smart motorway with no hard shoulder.

Emergency services response times

Any time there’s an accident on a regular motorway, all three lanes come to a grinding halt, with tailbacks potentially stretching out for miles depending on the time of day and how heavy the traffic is. All three emergency services may need to quickly rush to the scene of an accident to secure a potential crash scene, put out fires and provide emergency medical assistance. On a smart motorway with all four lanes filled with tightly packed traffic, their response times are drastically affected. Imagine a loved one being trapped in a car needing medical attention and specialist vehicle extraction tools and they’re sat helpless and stranded on a live lane on the motorway with 40+ ton lorries doing 56mph coming towards them. Also imagine the frustration of the first responders as they have to weave in and out of traffic as cars jostle around in an attempt to make room for them to get through. It’s a problem highways England have created, one that wasn’t there before smart motorways.

When they were questioned about this matter, they pointed to the 5000 miles of dual carriageway with no hard shoulder. That’s like a zoo removing the safety barriers on the grizzly bear enclosure and then saying there’s no safety barriers in the wild and only a handful of people are killed each year by bear attacks.

Near misses

Anyone familiar with health and safety protocol in the workplace, will know that near misses are required to be logged in the incident report book, so that the powers that be can ensure procedures are reviewed and potential changes can be made to prevent a serious incident in the future. Why Highways England doesn’t seem to think this applies to smart motorways is beyond me. I’ve seen with my own eyes overhead gantries showing no sign of a stranded vehicle ahead and then cars and trucks taking evasive action at the last minute because they didn’t see the stranded car. In January 2020, a freedom of information request showed near misses had increased 20 fold and that a particular warning sign had been out of action for 336 days. A BBC Panorama documentary aired around the same time and stated they found a 2000% increase in near misses and that only 9% of drivers felt safe using smart motorways.

System errors or a money making scam

Another little story of mine is setting off on the M5 from Droitwich at about 0415. Nothing but the occasional car or wagon north and southbound. Yet the overhead speed limit signs read 40, then 50, then 40, then 50, then 60 and back to 50 again until miles later they read national speed limit. This hasn’t been a one off incident either, it’s happened many times on many stretches of smart motorway. If this has been due to system errors then there’s a serious fault with whatever software controls the overhead gantries. You could be inclined to think it’s a cruel trick to catch out those not paying attention, those with their eyes on the road ahead and on their mirrors rather than speedos and gantries.

Who’s responsible

During a court hearing which referred Highways England to prosecutors for a potential corporate manslaughter charge, the State company said that it does not use cameras to monitor stopped cars on Smart Motorways. There’s currently 24 miles of radar detectors across all smart motorways but that took 12 months to construct, so what happens to the rest of the unmonitored motorway and how long is it going to take for them to cover the rest? A September 2018 incident where a woman was killed on a stretch of the M1 with no hard shoulder, brought the question to light. She had broken down and exited her vehicle only for another car to collide with her Nissan causing her own car to hit her. 16 minutes had gone by between her car breaking down and the fatal collision and then a further 6 minutes before the overhead gantries were activated signalling an accident.

A representative of highway England said of the incident, there was “no policy for the constant monitoring of motorways”. He said footage from a CCTV camera covering the scene of the crash was relayed to a busy regional control centre staffed by seven or eight people. Footage from around 450 roadside cameras – including 287 on smart motorways – across the Yorkshire and north-east region was sent to that site, he said. “Operators may occasionally look at CCTV images when they’re not engaged in responding to other incidents, but there is no constant or routine monitoring. It’s simply not part of the safety standard.” He said there was no evidence that any of the operators were aware of the stationary vehicle and decided to ignore it or did anything else “other than conscientiously go about their duties”.

So again, the question arises, who is responsible? You can’t have a system where fatal accidents are just allowed to happen with an apparent shrug of the shoulders and carry on as you were. Which is exactly what has happened. Less than a year later two men were killed on the M1 after a lorry ploughed into their car as they languished helpless in what would have been the hard shoulder.

Are there any benefits?

A six month study on the M42 found the average northbound journey times were reduced by 4 minutes and southbound times by 1 minute. While any gain is beneficial for both the driving public and the environment, I find such small gains insignificant compared to the dangers brought about by having no hard shoulder.

The cost of smart motorways

I think at this point highway’s England feel there’s been too much money been invested in this hair brained idea for them to admit their mistake and revert back to the standard motorways. They will use their government backing, corporate power and manipulated data to push through any remaining plans for smart motorway extensions and introductions, regardless of how many more lives are lost. A system that operates without accountability is immune to the laws that govern the rest of us.

Smart motorways kill campaign

Anyone who has read this and feels strongly about smart motorways should head to that was set up by Claire Mercer, the widow of Jason Mercer, who lost his life on a smart motorway. She has spoken on BBC radio 2 about the problem and aims to bring a judicial review to stop smart motorways. You can donate to help with legal fees as she fights the mindless perseverance of Highways England in their attempt to lower congestion on the cheap.

Tell us your thoughts!

What do you think of smart motorways? Are they part of a regular journey you make? Do you feel safe on them?

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