Man waves plastic bag during smart motorway breakdown as calls grow for hard shoulder to return

ITV News Meridian's James Dunham reports on growing calls for the government to reinstate the hard shoulder as footage is released of a man waving a carrier bag during a smart motorway breakdown (M23 video from Andrew Peters)

Footage has been released to ITV News showing the moment a man frantically waves a plastic carrier bag to alert other drivers to his broken down vehicle on a smart motorway.

The video from the M23 shows a van in a live lane of traffic unable to make it to the emergency refuge bay.

Recorded last year, this incident comes as the government faces fresh pressure to reinstate the hard shoulder on existing smart motorways following a decision to scrap the construction of 14 new ones over the weekend.

Mary Robertson from Burgess Hill in West Sussex experienced a blow out on the M1 whilst driving back from Hull.

After her terrifying ordeal, she can't understand why the hard shoulder can't be brought back.

"I felt physically sick and scared, really scared," says Mary.

"I was a woman on my own, which, you know, shouldn't make any difference, but for me, motorway driving and going a distance is a big thing.

"And then to have that and not feel that I was safe on the road that I was on is terrible."

There are around 375 miles of smart motorway in England, including 235 miles without a hard shoulder. Credit: PA

The government says it has made the decision to shelve future construction because of public confidence and funding.

Although the Department for Transport say drivers should be reassured that smart motorways are safe and that stopping on a hard shoulder on a conventional motorway still involves a risk to personal safety, with 1 in 14 deaths on motorways happening on a hard shoulder.   

Campaigner Sam Cockerill doesn't dispute the hard shoulder is still a risk but says being without one is much worse.

"The hard shoulder is a very dangerous place still but yet I think a refuge area and a live line is more dangerous. What needs to happen now then?

"As far as I'm concerned, just draw a white line, keep the technology and reinstate the hard shoulder.

"It shows that the existing ones are working and that there's not the confidence within the public that they're fit to use."

£900 million will be spent on introducing new concrete barriers, enhancing the technology which detects broken down vehicles and installing 150 new emergency refuge areas, although it's not clear where these will be constructed across the south and south east of England.

So could a hard shoulder be reinstated?

Jonathan Spruce from the Institution of Civil Engineers said: "It is practical, but it's a change and the Transport Select Committee's report, which led to the pause in smart motorways, actually said that may cause even more of a safety issue reinstating the hard shoulder because traffic would divert onto local roads or you get additional congestion.

"What we're talking about here is whether actually road capacity is the best solution. And because we don't have a national transport strategy, which is something the institution is calling for, we can't judge whether it should be road, whether it's rail or whether it should be public transport in a balanced approach."

Money well spent?

Millions of pounds has been spent creating smart motorway schemes on the M4, M27, M23, M3 and M20.

Joe Ventre from the TaxPayers' Alliance said, "It's right that questions should be asked about why the Smart Motorway project was allowed to amble on after years of dissatisfaction and genuine safety concerns.

"Ultimately, I think it looks like the scheme has been a very bad investment for taxpayers and has in many cases put motorists in grave danger.

"So I think lessons do need to be learned and ministers should look at more feasible ways to tackle the problems of congestion in the future."

Why did Rishi Sunak decide to ban smart motorways?

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

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

In his Tory leadership campaign last summer, Mr Sunak vowed to ban smart motorways.

“All drivers deserve to have confidence in the roads they use to get around the country,” the Prime Minister said.

“Many people across the country rely on driving to get to work, to take their children to school and go about their daily lives, and I want them to be able to do so with full confidence that the roads they drive on are safe.”