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Are smart motorways a smart idea?

The Government accept that public confidence in respect of the safety of smart motorways is low. The Department for Transport and Highways England maintain that smart motorways are at least as safe as normal motorways, despite the fact that there is no hard shoulder during busy periods. The Government intend to roll out smart motorways across the rest of the country.

The lawful requirement to protect life 

All public authorities in the United Kingdom are under a lawful authority, pursuant to the Human Rights Act 1998, to ensure that everyone's right to life is protected by law. 

The requirement states: "Everyone’s right to life shall be protected by law. No one shall be deprived of his life intentionally save in the execution of a sentence of a court following his conviction of a crime for which this penalty is provided by law."

Concerns raised by coroners after avoidable smart motorways deaths

There have been increasing concerns raised about the safety of smart motorways. In February 2021, a Coroner referred Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service to consider whether corporate manslaughter charges were appropriate. This was following the tragic death of Nargis Begum. My colleague, Chris Kardahji, is supporting the family to seek justice. The outcome of that referral is awaited.

Another colleague, Helen Smith, is representing Claire Mercer. Her husband, Jason, and Alexandru Murgreanu were killed when they were knocked down by a lorry shortly after a minor collision on an all-lanes running (ALR) motorway – roads which have no hard shoulder – near Sheffield.

Four coroners have now written reports warning about the potential for future avoidable deaths to occur as a result of smart motorways.

The intention to include emergency refuge areas

The Department for Transport (DfT) strategic roads, economics and statistics director, Jill Adam recently gave evidence to the Commons Transport Select Committee inquiry into the roads. She indicated that hundreds of millions of pounds could be spent retrofitting existing smart motorways with emergency refuge areas.

Smart motorways: Where next?

We all want to see our country prosper economically insofar as possible but not at the expense of avoidable deaths on our roads. If a driver is travelling in four lanes, with vehicles travelling at 70 miles per hour, and the vehicle starts to come to a halt with nowhere to go, one can only imagine the absolute fear that the occupants of the vehicle, some of whom may include young children, must have.

It is not so much a matter of data but a matter of common sense. We know that vehicles break down. We have seen the hard shoulder be used on normal motorways. If a vehicle breaks down on a smart motorway, the occupants of the vehicle simply cannot pull over anywhere safely. This exposes them to a grave danger of death or serious injury, which is avoidable.

If the Government is now intending to expend hundreds of millions on emergency refuge areas, one is left reflecting whether smart motorways have really been worthwhile when compared to the supposed economic benefits.

To be safe, there would need to be many emergency refuge areas as one cannot predict where a vehicle will break down. The alternative course of action is to invest more in our roads. We can build more roads, with hard shoulders. We can improve our transport links across the country, albeit in a safe way with a hard shoulder. We can increase the width of existing road so that the hard shoulder can remain. We can encourage car sharing.

The debate really comes down to avoidable deaths  v  further economic prosperity for our country. It is difficult to see how the Government can press on and roll out further smart motorways against the backdrop of its lawful duty under the Human Rights Act 1998, four damming reports from coroners after avoidable deaths, and the increasing awareness and concern of the public about the dangers of smart motorways.

There are better ways than removing the hard shoulder which is a lifeline to those in trouble on our motorways, when they need it the most.

Find out more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in supporting families following road collisions at our dedicated serious injury section.