Dangerous and unsafe smart motorways must be abandoned in Yorkshire says top police commissioner after M1 deaths

A police commissioner has called for 'dangerous and unsafe' smart motorways to be abandoned in Yorkshire following the death of two people on the M1.

By Alex Evans
Sunday, 24th January 2021, 8:00 am
Smart motorways should be abandoned, says a Yorkshire police commissioner
Smart motorways should be abandoned, says a Yorkshire police commissioner

The Police and Crime Commissioner for South Yorkshire Dr Allan Billings has written an open letter to the Secretary of State for Transport, The Right Hon Grant Shapps MP, and Highways England, calling for smart motorways where all lanes are live - such as on parts of the M1 in South Yorkshire - to be abandoned before more people die.

The call comes after a coroner ruled that the absence of a proper hard shoulder had contributed to the deaths of Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu on a stretch of the M1 in South Yorkshire, which is an all-lane running smart motorway.

Dr Billings said: "The coroner found that having no hard shoulder contributed to their deaths and I want to support that finding and urge you in the light of it to review this type of motorway with some urgency.

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"I believe smart motorways of this kind – where what would be a hard shoulder is a live lane with occasional refuges – are inherently unsafe and dangerous and should be abandoned.

"This is a view we have consistently held in South Yorkshire and a previous Chief Constable was forthright in saying this before the programme was embarked upon. It is what I said to Highways England officials when we met in January 2020 to discuss road safety across the county.

"At that meeting, Highways England sought to persuade me that smart motorways were as safe if not safer than the usual type of motorway. I said then and repeat now that I believe the way this conclusion is arrived at is the result of a flawed way of arguing. I do not believe it is helpful to compare collisions or deaths on the two types of motorway. The relevant test for us is whether someone who breaks down on this stretch of the motorway, where there is no hard shoulder, would have had a better chance of escaping death or injury had there still been a hard shoulder – and the coroner’s verdict makes it clear that the answer to that question is - Yes.

"I believe Highways England has been seduced by these false comparisons in order to increase the number of lanes to aid traffic flow at a lower cost than would have been the case if a hard shoulder had been built. We have traded driver safety for lower costs.

"In a normal year I would drive along this part of the motorway many times. It increases anxiety and tension knowing that should you break down, you may slow down considerably or come to a halt in a live lane with heavy goods vehicles coming up at speed behind. This is not my idea of ‘safe’. People need to be safe but also to feel safe when driving.

"In addition, it is one of a number of different types of motorway in South and West Yorkshire and that in itself is confusing and unhelpful for those who use them. These motorways are also busy with lorries from abroad and the different types of motorway within a relatively few miles cannot be easy for them to understand.

"In summary, I think the coroner’s verdict makes it imperative now to abandon this type of motorway before more lives are lost. I urge you or your officials to meet with me and others concerned with road safety in South Yorkshire when we can make the case in more detail."

A Highways England spokesperson said: “In March 2020 the Government published a smart motorway evidence stocktake report and found that in most ways smart motorways are as safe as, or safer than, conventional ones.

“Overall the risks for road users are less compared to conventional motorways and the stocktake report indicates that smart motorways have reduced the casualty rate by 18%. Drivers need to be aware that on average one in 12 (8%) motorway fatalities happen on the hard shoulder.

“But we know people are concerned about breaking down and we are determined to do all we can to make our roads as safe as possible. We have already completed some of the actions set out in the Transport Secretary’s action plan. This includes installing more new technology which will detect if a vehicle has stopped in a live lane.

“As with an emergency situation on any road, if you think your life is in danger you should call 999.”