Smart Motorways have proved to be fatal, and the plan to ‘make all future smart motorways all-lane running’ has been met with intense backlash from various parties. In this global era, developed countries exert a lot of effort to upgrade driveways and enable the easy flow of traffic.
According to the Commons Transport Select Committee (TSC), the government plans to roll out smart motorways should be abandoned because of safety concerns. The officials from the Committee aired out concerns over the ‘premature’ nature of this plan.
“A smart motorway is an area of the motorway which is designed to use traffic management tools such as variable speed limits and using the hard shoulder as a running lane to control the flow of traffic” [Source].
This is a common trend that is being adopted in many developed nations and implemented on busy highways. However, this initiative seems to be gradually turning into a killing machine. Instead of making driving easy for drivers, it is enacting more danger on drivers on the roads.
Concerned citizens formed a united front as a response to the government’s plans of smart motorways and carried out a demonstration. Protestors were seen marching to the Houses of Parliament to confront the government officials. They were carrying 38 cardboard coffins [Source] which signified how this new road technology takes drivers’ lives. The number ‘38’ was said to represent every driver that lost their life due to havoc caused by smart motorways between 2014 and 2019.
Some people reported that the figure for dead drivers is higher than 38, and the death toll was pegged at 63. Such symbolism attracted a lot of attention from the media and various human rights activist groups. Different messages were written on placards held by the protestors, and some notable ones read “How many more have to die?” and “Will you listen when it’s a coach full of school kids?”.
The demonstrators were family members of the smart motorway victims, and it was led by Claire Mercer, who lost her husband, Jason Mercer. This unfortunate incident took place in June 2019, in which both Mercer (44) and Alexandru Murgeanu (22) lost their lives near Sheffield [Source]. A narration of this sad occurrence highlight how “a lorry crashed into their vehicles which had stopped on the motorway after a minor shunt.”
According to Mrs. Mercer, their demonstrations were done to “force home the message that the Government is just ignoring us.” The government seemed determined to carry on with its roads projects while ignoring the deaths, so the citizens needed to hammer their message home using other means of communicating. To the demonstrators, the government is too adamant to admit that its plan is flawed and continues testing it.
And this does not look good since it might suggest the British authorities are doing a test-drive of the smart motorway while gambling with the life of humans. She explained that “They keep doing review after review. In the meantime, people are still dying”.
Mrs. Mercer expressed how many people were against the government on this issue and said, “There’s a really strong feeling against this. We need to embarrass the government into actually doing something”. She noted that they do not need any changes on the road system but want it to be removed entirely. She said, “We don’t need a raft of changes. We just need the hard shoulder back in every single instance”.
England adopted smart motorways in 2014 “as a cheaper way of increasing capacity compared with widening carriageways.” However, there was no driver orientation, and this is why RAC findings revealed that many drivers do not know what to do when a car breaks down without a hard shoulder and does not know where to find a refuge area. Cars are supposed to pull into a refuge area, and these areas are situated 1,6 miles apart.
But many accidents have been reported of vehicles being hit from behind. “The Government and National Highways should pause the rollout of new all-lane running schemes until five years of safety, and economic data is available for every all-lane running scheme introduced before 2020, and the implementation of the safety improvements in the Government’s action plan has been independently evaluated”, as noted by TSC’s report.
The report also disagrees with demonstrators who wanted hard shoulders to be permanently reinstalled on the roads and posited that “The evidence suggests that doing so could put more drivers and passengers at risk of death and serious injury.” It notes that refuge areas ought to be retrofitted to the all-lane running motorways, and the distance between them pegged at 0,75 miles or a maximum of one mile. This will enable one to walk into a refuge area.
The Committee does not believe in abandoning the smart motorways, and Tory MP Huw Merriman argued that “Looking at the available evidence, smart motorways do appear to be safer than conventional motorways even once the hard shoulder is removed.”
This was challenged as it was suggested that “However, this evidence is also open to question. Only 29 miles of these all-lane running smart motorways have operated for over five years. It, therefore, feels too soon, and uncertain, to use this as an evidence base to remove the hard shoulder from swathes of our motorway network.”
Mrs. Mercer also commented on this aspect of hard shoulders and said, “I don’t think they’re strong enough.”
“We welcome the Transport Committee’s scrutiny and will now consider its recommendations in detail, providing a formal response in due course. This is a serious piece of work which we will engage with closely in the months ahead”, said a Department for Transport spokesperson. The same sentiments were shared by Conservative MP Sir Mike Penning, who believes the TSC’s findings were “another significant step in the fight to improve safety on these motorways.”
But Mrs. Mercer and the demonstrators want the smart motorways rollout to be delayed so that they can pursue its ban in the courts.