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Smart motorways inquiry begins as MPs investigate impact of the roads on reducing congestion

April Roach
·3-min read
<p>Vehicles pass a Stopped Vehicle Detection radar sensor mounted adjacent to the southbound carriageway near Bagshot in Surrey where the M3 has been converted into a smart motorway</p> (PA)

Vehicles pass a Stopped Vehicle Detection radar sensor mounted adjacent to the southbound carriageway near Bagshot in Surrey where the M3 has been converted into a smart motorway

(PA)

MPs have launched an investigation into the safety of smart motorways.

The inquiry by the Commons’ Transport Select Committee will also analyse the impact of the roads on reducing congestion.

It comes after Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, died in June 2019 when a lorry driver ploughed into their vehicles while they were stationary on the M1 in South Yorkshire.

Smart motorways often involve converting the hard shoulder to a live running lane to boost capacity without widening the carriageway.

Sheffield coroner David Urpeth recorded a conclusion of unlawful killing for the deaths of Mr Murgeanu and Mr Mercer. He said at the time: “I find, as a finding of fact, it is clear a lack of hard shoulder contributed to this tragedy.”

He added that he would write to Highways England and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, to ask for a review, saying: “I believe smart motorways, as things stand, present an ongoing risk of deaths.”

Mr Shapps told the committee earlier this month that he “inherited” smart motorways, and pledged to get “get rid of confusions”.

These include “insane” dynamic hard shoulders, which switch between being used for emergencies and live traffic depending on demand.

Widow Claire Mercer at Sheffield Town Hall for the inquest into the death of her husband, Jason MercerPA
Widow Claire Mercer at Sheffield Town Hall for the inquest into the death of her husband, Jason MercerPA

He published a smart motorways action plan with 18 measures to boost safety.

Tory MP Huw Merriman, who chairs the committee, said: “The Department for Transport says smart motorways help us cope with a 23 per cent rise in traffic since 2000, helping congestion.

“The department’s own stocktake report points to lower fatal casualty rates for smart motorways without a permanent hard shoulder than on motorways with a hard shoulder. The serious casualty rate is slightly higher.

“This message isn’t reaching the public, whose confidence in smart motorways has been dented by increasing fatalities on these roads.

“Road safety charities are also expressing concerns. Will enhanced safety measures help? Will the public accept them following an awareness campaign? Or should there be a rethink of Government policy?

Work was carried out in Wokingham, Berkshire, on turning the M4 Motorway into a digital Mototway in January 2020PA
Work was carried out in Wokingham, Berkshire, on turning the M4 Motorway into a digital Mototway in January 2020PA

“There are genuine worries about this element of the motorway network and we want to investigate how we got to this point.”

Labour’s shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon added: “Dozens of people have lost their lives on smart motorways, so this investigation is welcome.”

RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: “There is an increasing level of concern around the safety of smart motorways from the driving public through to Westminster.

“While a major review has identified a number of key actions to improve safety and some progress has been made, there is still a great deal of work to do which will take several years to complete.”

Sheffield coroner, Mr Urpeth, told an inquest at Sheffield town hall in January this year: “I believe that smart motorways, as things currently stand, present an ongoing risk of future deaths.”

Mr Urpeth said it was not his role to conduct a public inquiry into smart motorways, but outlined a number of areas he believed should be considered by the Government and Highways England.

A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: “Since taking office, the current Secretary of State has expressed his concerns over smart motorways and has committed £500 million to safety improvements.

“We welcome this important inquiry from the Transport Committee and we will provide written evidence to help it in its work.”

Additional reporting by PA Media.

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