March 6, 2021

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Smart motorways: safety work to be stepped up after coroner’s ruling on drivers’ deaths

2 min read

Safety work on smart motorways is to be stepped up after a coroner warned that the controversial roads played a part in the deaths of two motorists. 

Sheffield coroner David Urpeth ruled that the primary cause of death of Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, on the M1 in South Yorkshire in June 2019 was lorry driver Prezemyslaw Szuba’s careless driving. 

However, recording a conclusion of unlawful killing, Mr Urpeth said: “I find, as a finding of fact, it is clear a lack of hard shoulder contributed to this tragedy.” 

He said he would write to Highways England and Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, calling for a review into smart motorways where the hard shoulder is removed to create extra capacity for traffic.

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‘Death trap’

Labour has condemned the roads as a “death trap” because of the danger to motorists who break down and has called for them to be scrapped, while lawyers backed the coroner’s plea for a review. 

The former Tory minister Tracey Crouch, who has registered her alarm over the M20 smart motorway in her Kent constituency, said: “It has sadly taken two lost lives and a coroner to point out what we all know – smart motorways are anything but smart.” 

Highways England last year announced an 18-point plan to improve the safety of smart motorways. 

The Department for Transport said Mr Shapps had called an “urgent meeting” with Highways England to “discuss their progress on that plan”. 

Britain's Transport Secretary Grant Shapps speaks during a virtual news conference, after a COBRA meeting that was called in response to increased travel restrictions amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, at 10 Downing Street, in London, Britain, December 21, 2020. Tolga Akmen/Pool via REUTERS
Grant Shapps is said to be frustrated with Highways England’s despite it announcing plans to improve the safety of smart motorways (Photo: Reuters)

Shapps ‘frustrated’

i understands Mr Shapps has been frustrated with the organisation’s reluctance to consider fresh safety measures and to implement them. Its chief executive, Jim O’Sullivan, announced his resignation last summer amid tensions with ministers over the smart motorways policy. 

Claire Roantree, partner in law firm Boyes Turner’s personal injury team, is demanding a “thorough review” into smart motorways’ safety, adding that their use should be halted “because these deaths are avoidable”.  

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“I expect we will continue to see more accidents of this nature. The Government expects traffic to increase by 60 per cent by 2040 and these smart motorways have been built to accommodate that, but they are clearly a danger,” she told i.  

Andrew Barton, associate in legal company DWF’s Regulatory, Compliance and Investigations team, said: “In my experience, the number of cases of people veering onto the hard shoulder tends to be very rare, so it seems to me there is an increased risk or occurrence of collisions in situations involving smart motorways.”

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