Keoghs Insight


Natalie Dawes

Smart Motorway safety concerns


Acting Senior Coroner, David Urpeth made the national headlines this week with a vocal criticism of Smart Motorways which he felt had contributed to the deaths of two motorists in road traffic collision on the M1 in June 2019. He found “as a finding of fact, it is clear a lack of hard shoulder contributed to this tragedy." 

Such tragic accidents on our motorways are all too common, and in turn a source of serious, high value claims; one avoidable death is clearly too many. 

Headlines such as these will inevitably provide a fresh focus as to the possibility of a cause of action against Highways England, or at least a claim for a contribution by a defendant insurer. The Government maintain robustly that these motorways have in fact reduced deaths See Smart Motorway All Lane Running Overarching Safety Report 2019 published in March 2020[1].

The report reached the following conclusions:

  1. Across the 9 schemes evaluated there had been an absolute reduction of 28% in the casualty rate.
    The results clearly show that the new design concept had improved safety overall.
  2. The rates for shunt and single vehicle run off collisions had reduced, which could be a result of reduced congestion, increased signs and signals to warn drivers of hazards and keep them alert.
  3. Overall, human errors remained the predominant factor contributed to injury collisions.
  4. The collision rate in the weekday peak periods (when speed limits are most likely to have been displayed) improved in all nine schemes evaluated, even those which experienced a worsening collision rate overall.
  5. On average, one stop was observed per Emergency Area (EA) every four hours. Of the 452 unique EA stops observed, 71% were non-emergency and 29% were genuine. The duration of non-emergency stops averaged 2 minutes 35 seconds and that of genuine stops averaged 14 minutes 10 seconds.

However, in a subsequent written statement in March 2020 it was acknowledged that some improvements were needed: what the evidence shows is that in most ways, smart motorways are as safe as, or safer than, the conventional ones. But not in every way.” A series of recommendations were set out in an Action Plan.

It is perhaps too easy to overlook the primary cause of the 2019 M1 tragedy was the lorry driver who, whilst on the phone, failed to see the stationary vehicles in the lead up to the collision. The vehicles were stationary on the hard shoulder for some six minutes and with the benefit of hindsight, had the drivers adhered to required practice they would have driven off the motorway at the next junction to exchange details, and secondly should have exited their vehicles to a place of safety.

In the case of collisions on UK Smart Motorways there will be an inevitable wish to investigate the issue, at the very least for a contribution claim. However, proving material contribution is likely to be a major challenge in any civil claim.  

For more infomation, please contact Natalie Dawes.