Smart motorways protesters carry coffins through London

Protesters have carried coffins across London’s Westminster Bridge to represent deaths on smart motorways since they were first introduced in an effort to ease congestion.

Around 50 demonstrators marched to Parliament Square earlier today (Monday) to demand a ban on so-called ‘all-lane running’ (ALR) motorways, which can convert the hard shoulder into a live traffic lane as road conditions demand.

There have been mounting concerns about the idea, following several fatal accidents involving stationary vehicles being hit from behind.

The protest action was led by Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason Mercer died on a stretch of the M1 without a hard shoulder. Mr Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, died near Sheffield when a lorry crashed into their vehicles, which had stopped on the motorway after a “minor shunt” in June 2019.

Mrs Mercer told the PA news agency the protest aimed to “force home the message that we’re just being ignored by the government”.

She said: “They keep doing review after review after review. In the meantime, people are still dying. There’s a really strong feeling against these. We need to embarrass the government into actually doing something.

“We don’t need a raft of changes. We just need the hard shoulder back in every single instance.”

As well as carrying 38 cardboard coffins, protesters held placards with such slogans as “How many more have to die?” and “Will you listen when it’s a coach full of school kids?”.

Mrs Mercer, from Rotherham, said the number of coffins corresponded to the official number of people killed on smart motorways between 2014 and 2019: “Obviously, that data is now out of date. The true figure is much, much bigger”.

She added that her campaign is educating the public about the risks of smart motorways. “My husband might still be alive if he’d known what a smart motorway was,” she said.

Janet Savage, 60, said she joined the demonstration after getting a flat tyre on a smart motorway several months ago.

“We couldn’t get off anywhere and it was the most terrifying thing in my life,” she told PA. She said her partner had to change the tyre on the M1 with “juggernauts going past”.

“I don’t ever want to get on one again, ever,” she added.

National Highways, the government-owned company responsible for England’s motorways and major A roads, said the chance of death on smart motorways is less than on any other major road.

Nick Harris, chief executive of National Highways – which, despite its self-aggrandising multi-million pound name change this summer, still only has jurisdiction over roads in England, not Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland – said: “Every road death is a tragic loss of life and our thoughts remain with those who have lost a loved one. Safety remains our top priority and our motorways are the safest type of road in the country.

“Data shows fatalities are less likely on smart motorways than on conventional ones, but we recognise concerns continue to be raised.

“We are determined to do all we can to help drivers feel safe and be safer on all our roads. We will work with drivers to make increasingly busy motorways safer for everyone who uses them.”

The Commons Transport Select Committee is due to publish a report tomorrow (Tuesday) on the roll-out and safety of smart motorways.

In September, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) issued its official analysis of a Department for Transport (DfT) report, published in March 2020, which claimed that smart motorways were at least as safe as conventional motorways.

The ORR analysis concluded that it could find no errors in the report’s calculations and that all the available data had been used in the ORR’s “stocktake” of the DfT report.

However, serious concerns about the efficacy and implementation of smart motorways on the UK’s road network remain, especially in the minds of drivers. The notion of ‘safe spaces’ – e.g. the hard shoulder – for emergency situations such as breakdowns to come to rest, away from fast-moving traffic, being an unpredictably temporary and fluid state remains a confusing and disturbing proposition for many people.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.