Steve BirdTue, 30 March 2021, 3:28 pm
Smart motorways were designed without enough thought for “human error”, a widow’s report has found, as it highlights how live lane breakdowns have increased more than 200 per cent.
A transport expert hired by Claire Mercer, whose husband died on the M1, has concluded that motorways where the hard shoulder has been scrapped and four lanes of traffic are running have “the lowest level of intrinsic safety”.
The 220-page dossier insists that the continued roll-out of smart motorways “is not justified” because they have the “highest rate of people killed or seriously injured”.
Sarah Simpson, a transport specialist at the engineering consultancy Royal Haskoning DHV, has spent a year analysing Highways England data to try to establish whether smart motorways are safer than traditional ones.
“I am in no doubt the ‘All Lane Running’ smart motorway has the lowest level of intrinsic safety of any form of motorway,” she writes in her report, sent to the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Highways England.
She accuses the Government-owned company of having failed to fully use a process called “Safe Systems”, which attempts to reduce deaths and injuries by factoring in how “people are fallible with physical vulnerabilities, and that human error occurs” because motorists can make “unwise decisions”.
The author says Highways England only adopted the “Safe Systems” approach in 2015, seven years after the transport select committee said it warranted “proper exploration for adoption”.
She adds how new technology – such as CCTV cameras and gantries with speed limits – “can give people the impression that they are safe, even when they are not”.
The report found that “the risk of being in a live lane breakdown increases 216 per cent” where the hard shoulder has been scrapped and emergency refuges are dotted along the roads.
Simpson says that it appears Highways England adopted a “value engineering approach used to compromise safety in order to reduce cost savings” when developing smart motorways.
Highways England has rejected repeated criticism of smart motorways by “mathematically offsetting risk” by pointing to other elements in their design that enhance safety, the report adds.
Mrs Mercer, from Rotherham, South Yorkshire, said: “Smart motorways are death traps. This report vindicates what I and other campaigners have been saying for some time. The report author warned me that she would only write what she found to be true, so it is independent.
“How many more people have to suffer the heartbreak of losing a loved one or suffer life-changing injuries before action is taken?”
The report, called An Independent Review of All Lane Running Motorways in England, was commissioned by the law firm Irwin Mitchell which is representing Mrs Mercer, 44, whose husband Jason, 44, died in 2019.
A total of four coroners investigating deaths on smart motorways – including Mr Mercer’s – have written reports warning how the removal of the hard shoulder poses a risk to life.
Helen Smith, a lawyer at Irwin Mitchell, which is representing Mrs Mercer, said the report “lays bare more shocking details about how a cost-driven, value engineering approach is compromising the public’s safety”.
She added: “It follows on from a number of concerns raised by key figures, including a police commissioner and coroners, about the safety of smart motorways.
“All of this just adds to the growing groundswell of opinion that more needs to be done to improve safety on smart motorways, which operate on some of the country’s major routes.
“We call on the Department for Transport, Grant Shapps, and Highways England to acknowledge that the development and roll out of ALRs was flawed. They must act in accordance with their legal duties and take action to improve safety, or face formal legal action.
“Claire, and other families whose lives have been tragically impacted by crashes on smart motorways, are determined to bring about change for the better.
“We’ll continue to support them in their campaign. If there are witnesses to similar accidents on smart motorways, we encourage them to get in touch with us to support the campaign.”
A Highways England spokesperson said they will respond to the report.
“Every road death is a tragic loss of life and we are determined to reduce the number of fatal incidents, and injuries, on our roads,” she added.
“The Government’s evidence stocktake of the safety of smart motorways analysed a wealth of data and found that in most ways they are as safe as, or safer than, conventional motorways. We are committed to delivering the stocktake actions to further raise the bar on smart motorway safety.”