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Coroner questions safety of ‘smart’ motorways after 8-year-old killed

Dev Naran died instantly after a lorry hit the stationary car he was in on a 'smart' motorway Credit: BPM Media

A coroner has questioned the safety of ‘smart’ motorways during the inquest of an 8-year-old boy who died after a lorry hit a stationary car he was in.

West Midlands coroner Emma Brown said she wanted information from Highways England on how they can improve detecting cars that have stopped on ‘smart’ motorways, according to the Sunday Telegraph.

She expressed concerns about the 'risk to life from the loss of the hard shoulder' as well as the lack of technology that detects when vehicles have come to a stop on ‘smart’ motorways.

24%
of motorists believe 'smart' motorways are unsafe, so use them like normal motorways - KwikFit

The concerns were raised during an inquest into the death of Leicester schoolboy Dev Naran who died on a hard shoulder in May 2018.

He was killed instantly when his grandfather’s Toyota Yaris was struck by a lorry travelling at 56mph on the M6 near Birmingham.

The boy's parents, Meera and Dilesh, want a review on ‘smart’ motorway safety, telling the Sunday Telegraph:

Why have people not been taught about these smart motorways?

I have lost my son and my family has been destroyed.

My father and the lorry driver have to live with what happened for the rest of their lives.

I keep coming back to how this accident would not have happened if there had been a proper hard shoulder."

– Meera Naran

An executive from Highways England told the inquest that it currently relies on calls from members of the public, police or an employee watching live CCTV to be made aware of vehicles that have come to a standstill on a ‘smart’ motorway.

They are currently testing a radar system that should detect stationary vehicles.

Dev Naran Credit: BPM Media

What is a ‘smart’ motorway?

‘Smart motorways’ were introduced by Highways England with the aim of reducing congestion. So far, over 200 miles of motorways across England have been converted into ‘smart motorways.’

When a motorway is converted, the hard shoulder can be used as a normal-running lane, either during busier periods or permanently.

But motoring groups have warned they create a safety risk as vehicles that break down suddenly could be hit from behind.

Currently, drivers who break down or crash only have access to ‘emergency refuge areas,’ which only appear every 1.5 miles. If cars were to stop in traffic on ‘smart’ motorways, then red X’s should appear on gantries overhead, warning others to vacate the lane.

Traffic on the hard shoulder of the M42 near Solihull. Credit: PA

But there are concerns as to how well these rules are being followed:

180,000
warning letters issued to drivers who've ignored red X signs since start of 2017 - Highways England
23%
of drivers have admitted to breaking the rules of the road by disregarding the red X - RAC
3%
of motorists admitted to disregarding the red X "on purpose" - RAC

There are 3 types of 'smart' motorway:

  • Controlled motorway - This type of motorway has variable speed limits. Vehicles can only use the hard shoulder in an emergency, such as a breakdown.
  • Hard shoulder running - On this type of motorway vehicles are allowed to use the hard shoulder at peak times to ease congestion.
  • All lanes running - On these stretches motorists can use the hard shoulder as a normal lane, all the time. They have Emergency Refuge Areas every 1.5 miles.
Motorists drive on the hard shoulder of one of the busiest stretches of motorway in Britain between junctions 3 and 7 of the M42, in a bid to ease congestion. Credit: PA

With the three different types of 'smart' motorway in operation, the system has proved confusing for some drivers.

A recent survey by KwikFit found that motorists could be driving dangerously because of a lack of awareness of the rules.

15%
of drivers wrongly believe a blank sign means the hard-shoulder is open to traffic - KwikFit

The survey found that 45% of motorists incorrectly believed that 'flashing amber lights with an arrow' means a lane is open.

In fact, it is used to indicate that there is a hazard ahead and they need to move across to the next lane.

Highways England said research shows smart motorways lead to fewer collisions while also reducing congestion:

First and foremost our deepest sympathies are with the family of Dev Naran and those affected by this tragic incident.

Any death on our network is one too many and we take our responsibilities very seriously.

The coroner stated that there was no evidence of any legitimate reason for the Toyota Yaris stopping in a live lane.

Smart motorways include more features than conventional motorways to further enhance safety, and both are significantly safer for drivers than other roads."

– A Highways England spokesperson said

Highways England say they are awaiting the coroner's report which has not yet been published.

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