‘If there’d been a hard shoulder, I’d still have my mum’: are smart motorways safe?

Claire Mercer doesn’t drive. She has always been anxious about it. “I have tried to learn, but I’m just too nervous,” says Mercer, a 44-year-old construction buyer from Rotherham. For years her husband, Jason, drove her everywhere. A broad-chested contract manager, Jason was a perfect match for Claire: they both enjoyed death metal, had numerous tattoos and piercings, and even dyed their hair the same shade of red. But their hard edges belied quiet lives. Both had struggled with their mental health and found refuge in each other, Jason’s lively optimism softening Claire’s anxiety. They had been together for 13 happy years. They were planning to get a dog.

Aan 7 Junie 2019, Jason and Claire ate breakfast at their local Costa as usual: Marmite on toast, porridge. Normally, Jason would drop Claire at work before heading in himself, but that morning Claire was feeling unwell, so she called in sick and walked home. Jason predicted an easy day: a run to see clients in York and Huddersfield, and back to the office in Sheffield. They kissed goodbye and Jason waved as he pulled away. “It was like the ending of a film," sy sê.

She often thinks about the little things that were different that day, about how, because Jason didn’t have to drop her off, he drove a different route from usual. Or about how, two days earlier, Jason had sold his trusted Ford Fiesta and taken ownership of a gleaming new company car, a Ford Focus ST. Claire doesn’t know if either of those things were on Jason’s mind that morning, if they influenced what happened. What she does know is this: a few minutes after leaving her, Jason was driving north on the M1 when he changed lanes and collided with a Ford Transit van. It was a minor scrape but, as is required by law, Jason pulled over to exchange insurance details with the other driver, Alexandru Murgeanu, a 22-year-old delivery worker from Romania.

The stretch of the M1 where Mercer and Murgeanu collided, between junctions 34 en 35, is what’s known as an all lane running “smart” motorway; in 2016, the hard shoulder was converted into a lane open to live traffic to increase capacity. With nowhere obvious to stop, Mercer and Murgeanu pulled up against the safety barrier and stepped out of their vehicles. The traffic dutifully moved over to avoid them, but the lane remained open. Six minutes later, Prezemyslaw Szuba, a 40-year-old Polish lorry driver, failed to notice the obstruction ahead. At 8.15am, Szuba’s truck ploughed into the back of Murgeanu’s van at 56mph. Mercer and Murgeanu were killed.

After the accident, Claire Mercer was consumed by loss. “I started shaking and I couldn’t stop. I was shaking for six weeks.” Her doctor diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. Intussen, Mercer occupied herself with the painful work of identifying the body and arranging a funeral. “Over the next week or so, I started to hear the term ‘smart motorway’," sy sê. “I didn’t know what a smart motorway was. Then I kept hearing it everywhere.”

Tussen 2015 en 2019, 39 people died on UK smart motorways where there is no hard shoulder or the hard shoulder can be converted to live traffic, according to figures from Highways England, the state-owned company that operates England’s motorways and A-roads. (In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, roads are managed by separate bodies.) If you measure the number of deaths per mile of smart motorway, it has risen from one for every 43 miles of road in 2016, to one for every 17 miles in 2019. Many of those deaths have been in similar accidents to Mercer and Murgeanu’s – people hit by traffic while they were stranded in a live lane. The chair of the Police Federation, John Apter, has called smart motorways “death traps”. Sir Mike Penning, the Conservative former transport secretary who approved smart motorways, now says that he was “misled” and their rollout “should never have happened”. Labour has called for them to be abolished. In Februarie, a coroner investigating the death of a woman from Sheffield on the M1 referred the case to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), to investigate whether, in removing the hard shoulder, Highways England might be guilty of corporate manslaughter.

Mercer now runs Smart Motorways Kill, a campaign to lobby the government to reinstate hard shoulders. For the last two years, she has become the loudest and most tenacious critic of smart motorways. “They’re killing people," sy sê. We’re speaking over video call, the day after what would have been Jason’s 46th birthday. She marked the occasion by protesting outside Sheffield police headquarters. Since launching the campaign, she has been inundated with support from those who have been injured or lost loved ones on the new roads. “We’ve had people contact us anonymously. We’ve had control-room operators, we’ve had traffic officers, a lot of people, sê, ‘This needs to come out.’”

But Mercer has faced attacks on social media by some proponents of smart roads, who argue that her campaign is creating unnecessary hysteria. “They say, ‘You’re already emotionally unstable, you’re very angry, you’re lashing out,’” she says. Highways England, intussen, insists that smart motorways are not only safer than conventional motorways but the safest form of major road. Sover, the government has agreed, and remains committed to their rollout – from 374 miles today to nearly 800 miles by 2025.

The fight looks destined to end up in court. If it does, the consequences could cost the government tens of millions of pounds, and reverse what amounts to the biggest change to British roads in decades.

When the UK’s first intercity motorway, the M1, oopgemaak in 1959, it had no speed limit and little in the way of safety considerations. It’s said that on opening the road, then transport secretary Ernest Marples watched the cars roar away and exclaimed, “My God, what have I started?” Accidents and breakdowns were common; 6,520 people died on British roads that year. As gevolg daarvan, since the 1980s motorways have been built with a hard shoulder, a 3.3 metre strip of tarmac alongside the far left lane, designed as a refuge for broken-down vehicles and to provide access for emergency services. (In many countries, the hard shoulder is referred to as the emergency lane.)

Vandag, Britain boasts more than 2,300 miles of motorway. If rural roads are the capillaries of the road network, motorways are the major veins; though they make up only 1% of all roads in Britain by length, they carry 20% of car traffic and 46.3% of lorry traffic. Cumulatively, we drive more than 70bn miles on them every year. They are also getting busier. According to the Department for Transport, road traffic could increase by between 17% en 51% deur 2050.

Facing rising congestion, in the early 2000s the Highways Agency (now Highways England) proposed a solution: using the hard shoulder as a live lane in peak times. These Dynamic Hard Shoulder (DHS) motorways, they argued, would be cheaper than road widening, which is both slow and prohibitively expensive. To mitigate the loss of the hard shoulder, emergency refuge areas (laybys, essentially) were added every 500 meter, and the roads monitored by CCTV so that if traffic operators detected an accident, they could close the lane using X signs on the overhead gantries.

Most significantly, DHS motorways introduced sensors embedded in the road to detect when traffic is slowing down and automatically lower the speed limit. (It’s this Motorway Incident Detection and Automatic Signalling system, or Midas, that makes smart motorways both “smart” and safer.) Midas does more than cut congestion. Evidence shows variable speed limits significantly reduce accidents caused by speeding, tailgating and rear-end collisions.

The first DHS “smart motorway” opened on the M42 in 2006, and was deemed a success. Travel times shortened and accident rates fell. Then the financial crisis hit and, in the public purse strings tightening that followed, the Highways Agency went even further. In 2014 it abandoned the idea of the hard shoulder entirely to introduce all lane running (ALR) motorways. ALR, het dit gesê, would be just as safe as conventional motorways and – crucially – increase capacity while costing 60% less per mile than widening existing roads.

ALR was immediately controversial. In 2016, the parliamentary transport select committee called it a “radical change” in the nature of motorways. Not only did ALR remove the hard shoulder, it also reduced the number of emergency refuge areas, from one every 500 metres to one every 2.5km. Dit, road safety organisations warned, dramatically increased the chance of dangerous live-lane breakdowns. “If they can’t see a refuge area, drivers tend to panic and stop where they are,” says Jack Cousens, head of roads policy at the AA, “whereas if you can see one, you’re likely to limp into the layby.”

Once a car has broken down in a live lane, it’s a race to warn following traffic of the obstruction ahead. Although Midas can detect cars slowing down, it is not designed to detect stopped vehicles. For that, the road agency relies on CCTV. But there are not enough staff at the regional operation centres (ROC) to continuously watch every camera (a recent court case revealed that at one ROC, eight operators oversaw 450 cameras) and response times are poor. It takes on average 17 minutes for operators to notice a stopped car and close the lane, and another 17 minutes for Highways England traffic patrols to arrive at the scene – often too late to prevent an accident.

Even attending to a crash can be fraught. The AA and RAC will no longer go to breakdowns on smart motorways until Highways England has shut the lane and erected barriers. “If there are none of those protections there, it’s not safe for us,” says Nicholas Lyes, head of roads policy at the RAC. In some cases, the lack of hard shoulder access has prevented emergency services from attending accidents quickly. In Mercer’s case, air ambulances had to be deployed.

Ekn 2019, responding to the growing uproar over smart motorways, the secretary of state for transport, Grant Shapps, ordered Highways England to undertake a “comprehensive evidence stocktake” of their safety. The result was a 78-page document, published last March, that appears to be as much a public relations exercise as a safety review. In its foreword, Shapps said, “In most ways, smart motorways are as safe as, or safer than, the conventional ones. But not in every way.” The report concluded that, thanks to Midas and variable speed limits, smart motorways are safer than conventional motorways. It did, egter, concede that the chances of live-lane breakdowns are higher. As gevolg daarvan, Shapps ordered a number of improvements to the smart motorways network, including reducing the gap between refuge areas to a maximum of one mile, installing a radar system to better detect stopped vehicles and a £5m public relations campaign to inform users on how to safely use the roads. But Shapps also announced that dynamic hard shoulders are to be abolished – in future, smart motorways will be all lane running as standard.

When Niaz Shazad read the stocktake, he was distraught. “They were on a specific agenda. They were trying to toe the line, and they used the data to be able to do that,” says the 33-year-old finance manager from Manchester. Shazad’s mother, Nargis Begum, was killed on a smart stretch of the M1 in 2018, after breaking down in a live lane. Sy vader, who was also in the car, has not fully recovered. “The thing that I find difficult is, if there had been a hard shoulder, her car would never have been in that lane,” Shazad says. “And if the car hadn’t been there, I’d still have my mum.”

After analysing the data closely, Shazad felt the government stocktake had been misleading. While fatality rates on smart motorways are indeed lower than all other types of road, Highways England’s own data showed the chance of suffering slight and serious injuries is higher and, while three out of nine motorways converted to ALR saw serious and fatal accidents drop dramatically, on six out of nine they actually increased. The report did not include near misses which, Volgens BBC’s Panorama, increased 20-fold on a stretch of the M25 after it was converted to ALR. “They’re not being honest, and they’re not being transparent,” Shazad says. “They’re compounding the problem that they know is there by putting plasters on what is clearly broken.”

It is Begum’s case that a coroner has referred to the CPS for potential corporate manslaughter charges. While the family is still waiting for the investigation, Shazad’s lawyers are exploring potential charges in a civil court, arguing that the government knew about the increased risk of live-lane deaths on ALR roads.

The evidence is compelling. According to public Highways Agency documents, the initial design for ALR included no refuge areas at all, but was abandoned in part due to “reputational considerations” for the Agency. Even once refuge areas were included, minutes from internal meetings show that Department for Transport lawyers raised concerns about whether all lane running could leave the government open to corporate manslaughter charges. (In reaksie, Highways England said the report was commissioned by its predecessor, and that emergency areas “have a positive road user perception about feeling safe”. As for the lawyers’ concerns, “it is common for questions of this nature to be raised as part of the due diligence process when new ideas and designs are being considered”.)

Though safety modelling did show that introducing ALR would probably reduce the overall number of motorway fatalities, thanks to variable speed controls, documents show daardie, as early as 2015, Highways England knew removing the hard shoulder would result in a 216% increase in the likelihood of live-lane breakdowns. Breakdowns that would inevitably lead to deaths such as those of Jason Mercer, Alexandru Murgeanu and Nargis Begum.

Ekn his evidence to the transport select committee in 2019, the recently departed head of Highways England, Jim O’Sullivan, geroep road management “the science of very small numbers”. It’s a blunt line, but contains some truth. British roads are among the safest in Europe, after Sweden, Norway and Switzerland. Van die 1,752 deaths on them in 2019, enigste 105 were on motorways and just 14 on smart motorways. Motorway fatalities are now so low that one snowstorm or rainy month can make the difference between figures rising or falling year on year.

“Motorways are the safest form of road we have,” the AA’s Cousens says. “Compared with A-roads, rural roads, residential streets, trunk roads, they are the safest.” You are far more likely to die on a rural road, with their unpredictable pedestrians, cyclists and junctions, than on a smart motorway.

Part of the outcry over smart motorways is tied to the way in which people die: broken down in the middle of the road, watching the headlights rush up behind. Most accidents happen due to speeding or reckless driving; breakdowns can happen to anyone. When Ben French, a 28-year-old electrician from Staffordshire, had a tyre blow out on the M6 in February 2020, he pulled up in the left-hand lane and could only watch in the rear-view mirror as a lorry ploughed into the back of his transit van. “I thought I was finished," hy sê. He woke up in hospital with multiple serious injuries, including a broken pelvis, fractured rib and punctured lung. When we speak in March, he is still at home, using a wheelchair and relearning to walk. Paramedics told French the back of his van saved his life. If he had exited the vehicle to climb over the safety barrier, as per Highways England’s safety guidance, it’s likely the collision would have killed him instantly. “If I had tried to get out of that van, I would definitely be dead,” French says. “It’s disgusting. How can they say it’s safe?”

“That’s the horror in all of this,” Cousens says. “If I broke down on a stretch of smart motorway and couldn’t reach the emergency refuge area, I’ve got a Sophie’s Choice position on my hands. Which kid am I getting out of the child seat first? It’s a horrible situation to even contemplate.”

Highways England refused to allow anyone to be interviewed for this article. In a statement they said, “Any death on our roads is one too many, and we are continually working to make motorways safer for drivers who use them.” It’s a neat line. It is also disingenuous. If any death were one too many, we would simply lower the national speed limit to 20mph and spend our lives safely crawling along in endless tailbacks. Even that would probably not eliminate all road deaths. Moreover, we know how to reduce deaths on smart motorways: design the roads with hard shoulders. According to Highways England’s own figures, the safest roads on the network are what are called managed motorways – the 141 miles of existing motorway with variable speed limits installed, but which retain a permanent hard shoulder. So the real, unspoken question becomes: how much money are we willing to spend to save a life? And if we’re not, how many deaths are we willing to allow, so that we don’t get stuck in traffic?

As it turns out, we have a figure for that. In calculating matters of health and safety, the British government uses something called the value of a prevented fatality (VPF) – the value of a statistical life, based on a complex calculation that includes lost output and medical and legal costs, as well as the grief of the deceased’s family. The VPF has for decades been calculated, conveniently, by the Department For Transport, and is currently valued at just over £2m.

The VPF itself is quietly controversial. A recent review concluded that the government’s methodology for calculating the VPF, largely based on a small study done in 1997, is both inadequate and outdated. Philip Thomas, a professor at Bristol University and a leader in the field, has argued that the government’s valuation of a statistical life is too low and should be closer to £8.6m. “We’ve found it to be very sadly lacking,” Thomas says. (Die US Department of Transportation, by contrast, values a statistical life at $11.6m, or £8.2m.)

Thomas has lobbied the Department for Transport to rethink how it sets the VPF, which is used across government in all kinds of risk calculations. That decision would have profound consequences – not least in the midst of a pandemic that has, tot op hede, vermoor 127,000 mense in die Verenigde Koninkryk. In the case of smart motorways, it would significantly alter the calculation of whether to widen motorways to keep the hard shoulder – which, based on figures from the M25, would cost around £10m per mile more than converting roads to ALR.

Natuurlik, the calculation isn’t quite that simple. In Februarie, Shapps was asked in parliament why the government had not yet reversed the smart motorway rollout. “It would require the equivalent land of 700 Wembley stadium-sized football pitches to somehow undo all this,” Shapps replied. “We’d have to buy people’s homes, to destroy acres of green belt. I don’t see there’s a route through simply undoing. We’ve got to make what is there safe.”

Of, as Shazad tells me: “At the end of the day, it’s all down to money.”

Ekn January, Claire Mercer travelled to Sheffield town hall for the coroner’s inquest into the deaths of her husband Jason and Alexandru Murgeanu. The courtroom was quiet; coronavirus restrictions meant Mercer sat two metres away from her lawyer, her face obscured by a mask. Representatives from Highways England gave evidence, as did Szuba, who joined by phone from prison. Last October, Szuba, who had pleaded guilty to causing death by driving without due care and attention, was sentenced to 10 maande. The court found he lost concentration for just over five seconds – less time than the average person will take reading this sentence – before the collision that resulted in the deaths. Selfs so, Mercer maintains that Szuba was wrongly imprisoned. “I’ve never felt hate for him," sy sê. “I learned, jy weet, I taught myself that the motorway was to blame more than he was.”

After hearing from all sides, coroner David Urpeth issued his verdict. Although fault lay with Szuba, hy het gesê, and Mercer and Murgeanu should never have stopped in a live lane, they would still be alive had it not been for the hard shoulder’s removal. As gevolg daarvan, he ruled that their deaths amounted to “unlawful killing” and “smart motorways, as things currently stand, present an ongoing risk of future deaths”. Verlede week, South Yorkshire police confirmed they were investigating the deaths of Mercer, Murgeanu and Begum with a view to the possible commencement of criminal proceedings.

“It was like somebody punched me in the stomach. It knocked the wind out of me,” Mercer says of the coroner’s verdict. “My first thought was, they’ve just ruled that the government are responsible for killing my husband. I’ve always believed that, but for someone in legal office to say it – no one can argue with us, sê, ‘She’s just a distraught widow’ now.”

Mercer’s lawyers are preparing to petition the high court to launch a judicial review into the legality of ALR motorways. “We’re looking at potentially a public inquiry, civil actions, class actions,” Mercer says. We are talking on video, and her dog, Jerry, lounges nearby. She adopted him shortly after Jason’s death.

In Maart, Highways England finally launched its long-awaited public safety campaign about what to do in the event of breaking down on a smart motorway. The advert features two men dressed in fly costumes splattered on a car windscreen, singing “Go left” to the tune of Go West by the Pet Shop Boys. When another smart motorway widow sent Mercer the video link, she initially thought it was a sick joke. “Most people killed on smart motorways are not in their vehicles. We’re talking people hit by large vehicles at high speeds. And so using people dressed as flies squashed on a windscreen… I just think it was particularly disgusting and thoughtless.”

For Mercer, it’s that detachment that is the hardest of all. At Jason’s inquest, the coroner questioned Max Brown, the head of road design for Highways England, about removing the hard shoulder. Brown seemed defensive. After several attempts from Urpeth, he finally conceded that, ja, if there had been a hard shoulder that morning on the M1, it’s likely Mercer and Murgeanu would still be alive. Selfs so, he pointed again to the casualty data, which showed that overall, smart motorways are safer roads. After he’d finished, Mercer asked for the opportunity to speak. “I said, ‘What you need to remember is they’re just figures to you,’” she says, her voice breaking, “‘but that was my husband.’”

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