Rishi Sunak faces pressure to justify ‘death trap’ smart motorways

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has faced fresh calls to scrap “death trap” smart motorways.

Labour MP Sarah Champion highlighted figures suggesting 79 people have been killed on such roads.

Around 10% of England’s motorway network is made up of smart motorways.

They involve various methods to manage the flow of traffic, such as converting the hard shoulder into a live running lane and variable speed limits.

But there have been long-standing safety fears following fatal incidents in which vehicles stopped in live lanes without a hard shoulder were hit from behind.

Ms Champion, whose Rotherham constituent Jason Mercer was killed on a smart motorway in South Yorkshire in 2019, told the House of Commons: “To date, 79 people have been killed on smart motorways.

“Last January, the Government said it would pause their rollout.

Smart motorways death protest
Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason was killed on a section of smart motorway on the M1, near Sheffield (Danny Lawson/PA)

“The Prime Minister said ‘smart motorways are unpopular because they are unsafe. We need to listen to drivers and stop with the pursuit of policies that go against common-sense’.

“Since then three new schemes have gone live with three more expected shortly.

“Prime Minister, especially during a cost-of-living crisis, how do you justify pushing ahead with these death trap roads?”

Mr Sunak replied: “Safety on our roads is our absolute priority and we will do everything we can to make sure drivers do feel safe.

“Last year, we in fact paused the rollout of smart motorways not already in construction while we consider the data and next steps.

“In the meantime, we’ve committed almost £900 million for safety improvements across the entire network.”

In January 2022, the Government paused the expansion of motorways where the hard shoulder is used as a permanent live traffic lane.

This was to enable five years of data to be collected to assess whether they are safe for drivers.

Also on Wednesday, the Commons Transport Select Committee heard that a “sticking-plaster approach” has been used to try to improve smart motorways.

AA president Edmund King told MPs “it’s costing something like £900 million” for National Highways to install additional emergency refuge areas (ERAs), stopped vehicle detection technology and more signs.

He described the roads as “a system that was brought in on the cheap to try and save money” but has “put lives at risk and also congestion at risk”.

He went on: “That is one example of really poor policy over the years, and there’s just been this sticking-plaster approach.

“Can we make it slightly better? Can we put in a few more ERAs? Can we put in a bit more technology even though that technology is not working?

“The decision should have been made 10 years ago to stop this nonsense.

“Drivers hate driving on smart roadways.

“It’s an example of patching up rather than having this real vision of what you want from the road network.”