Smart motorways killed my eight-year-old son – they need to be banned or more will die

WHEN a lorry ploughed into the back of his grandad's car on the M6, eight-year-old Dev Naran was killed instantly.

The bright schoolboy was travelling home from seeing his severely disabled brother in a Birmingham hospital, in 2018, when his grandad was forced to stop the car on a smart motorway stretch with no hard shoulder.

The death toll on motorways where hard shoulders operate as traffic lanes, which now make up over 600 miles of the UK network – has reached a record high.

Thirty-eight people were killed on them in the five years to January 2020 and figures published last week revealed that deaths rose from five in 2017 to 15 in 2019.

Last month a lorry ploughed into stationary car on the M1 and a man was airlifted to hospital with what are thought to be life-changing injuries.

The accident is the latest recorded on a 16-mile stretch of smart motorway where five people- including grandmother Nargis Begum, 22-year-old Alexandru Murgeanu and Jason Mercer, 44 – lost their lives in a ten month period.

Last weekend, Jason's widow Claire Mercer staged a protest outside South Yorkshire Police HQ in Sheffield, calling for Highways England to be prosecuted over her his death. 

Jason's inquest, last month, heard that he and fellow motorist Alexandru Murgeanu, would would have been saved if there had been a hard shoulder.

Now relatives, MPs and motoring bodies, including the AA, have called for greater safety measures for the modern motorways.

South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) Dr Alan Billings told the Sun smart motorways should be abandoned to avoid "more serious injuries or fatalities".

He said: “I believe smart motorways are inherently dangerous".

Hailed as the answer to Britain’s choked roads, smart motorways were first trialled in 2006 on the M42 in the West Midlands.

Computers monitor traffic build-up and the hard shoulder is opened to increase flow at busy times, with some stretches, known as All Lane Running (ALR) having no hard shoulder at all.

With an average of over 17 minutes before the lane is closed, broken down vehicles have to sit tight while traffic hurtles past them.

“We expect people to design danger out of motorways, not design danger in, says Dr Billings.

“When you're travelling at 60 miles an hour you have to act incredibly swiftly to stop in time, and sometimes people don’t.”

Dev's heartbroken mum Meera, from Leicester, says Dev was a loving boy who adored his brother Neel, 11.

"Dev was a great sportsman and loved playing football,” she tells the Sun.

“He also loved school and studying and was learning Mandarin.

“He always put his brother first for everything and never asked for anything for himself.”

Meera, 37, is now campaigning for more refuge areas and better education around smart motorways.

“I don’t want anyone else to go through what we did – to lose a loved one like this.”

Killed after stopping over minor prang

Jason Mercer's widow Claire, 44, vividly remembers the day her world fell apart, on June 7 2019.

After sharing breakfast at a coffee shop near their Rotherham home, Jason, a building contracts manager, kissed her goodbye and told her loved her before driving off to work.

A few hours later, police were at her door.

“I just kept saying, ‘Is he alive?’ I was frozen to the spot," she says.

“Finally the male officer said ‘I'm afraid not.’ I collapsed on the floor in shock.

“They took me to my mum’s – that’s the last thing I remember for two weeks. I wasn't capable of functioning.

“But I kept hearing the term ‘smart motorways’. I didn’t know anything about them before that.”

Jason and Alexandru had stopped on a stretch of the M1 where the hard shoulder had been replaced by an active lane, after a minor prang.

Seconds later lorry driver Prezemyslaw Szuba ploughed into them, killing them both instantly.

Szuba, 40, was jailed after admitting careless driving but at Jason’s inquest, coroner David Urpeth said smart motorways carry an "ongoing risk of future deaths".

Sergeant Mark Brady, who oversees major collision investigations for South Yorkshire Police, told the hearing: "Had there been a hard shoulder, my opinion is that Mr Szuba would have driven clean past them."

Wife Claire, 44, from Rotherham, says knowing his death could have been prevented makes his loss even more unbearable.

"Had there been a hard shoulder, my opinion is that Mr Szuba would have driven clean past them."

She told the Sun: “I've known that all along but to hear the coroner rule that they were unlawfully killed, and that Highways England were culpable in that, really hurt. I burst into tears.”

Promises on safety broken

Sir Mike Penning, the former minister who signed off the rollout of the network in 2010, now believes the roads are deadly and says he was misled about the risks.

He says the M42 pilot, which convinced him they were safe, worked well because there was an Emergency Refuge Area (ERA) every 600 metres.

But when the scheme was expanded, the refuges were placed further apart – in some cases as far as 2.5miles.

“When we agreed the rollout, the distance to the safe areas were close, and there were commitments towards technology to detect broken down cars and instantly shut lanes,” Sir Mike tells the Sun.

“But since I left, I've had massive concerns. What we've seen is a mutation of all the promises around safety and we still don't have the safety devices that were promised.

People are being killed and seriously injured on these roads, and it should never have happened.

“The motorist deserves our roads to be the safest network in the world, and they need Highways England to do what they were told to do.

"People are being killed and seriously injured on these roads, and it should never have happened.”

Eight people monitoring 450 cameras

A report by a cross party committee found that drivers are nearly twice as likely to suffer a live lane breakdown on a smart motorway (38 per cent) compared to conventional motorway (20 percent).

The report slammed the rollouts as “a public policy failure” adding, “It is reflective of their lack of focus on safety in this entire project.”

It also recommended the widespread use of vehicle detection systems which can spot stranded vehicles as soon as drivers break down – currently used on just two stretches of the M25.

The rest of the network relies on a bank of cameras being intermittently monitored by Highways England staff.

The recent inquest of Nagris Begum, a grandmother-of-nine who died when another car smashed into her broken Nissan Qashqai on the M1, heard that just eight people were monitoring the 450 smart motorway cameras within the Yorkshire and North East region.

Doncaster coroner Nicola Mundy asked the CPS to consider corporate manslaughter charges against Highways England after it took 22 minutes to trigger warning lights to close the lane.

What to do if yu break down on a smart motorway

If your vehicle has a problem on a motorway with no hard shoulder:

Move into the left hand lane and put your hazard lights on

Exit at the next junction or services OR

Follow the orange SOS signs to an emergency area and call for help using the free telephone. This will tell us your location.

If you can’t get off the motorway or to an emergency area:

Move your vehicle as close as possible to the left-hand verge, boundary or slip road

If you feel you can get out safely with any occupants, consider exiting your vehicle via the left-hand door, and wait behind the safety barrier if there is one and it is safe to do so. Keep clear of your vehicle and moving traffic at all times

Call 999 immediately

If your car stops unexpectedly in any lane and it is not safe to get out

Keep your seatbelts and hazard lights on and call 999 immediately


Claire believes the safety measures should have been rolled out sooner.

“Who allowed them to open the smart motorways without the ability to shut lanes quickly?” asks Claire.

“Why are they even called ‘smart’ if they haven't got the technology?

“Not only do the operators not look at the cameras very often, in Nargis Begum's hearing they said they occasionally glance at them.

“Without the technology and the humans checking cameras, what we have is a motorway without the hard shoulder.”

Dr Billings has written to Transport Secretary Grant Shapps and Highways Agency to express his concerns over the smart stretch on the M1.

“Grant Shapps responded to me saying ‘overall evidence shows that in most ways these smart motorways are as safe as, or safer, than conventional motorways, but not in every way.’ That last bit is the interesting phrase.

“That mantra that they are as safe as or safer than conventional motorways is trotted out by Highways England and the Department of Transport but I think they're wrong about that.

“Statistics on the number of collisions and fatalities on conventional motorways and smart motorways are not comparing like with like, because on smart motorways, warning signs slow the traffic.

“Taking away the hard shoulder is a separate issue.”

In a recent YouGov poll, 64 per cent of drivers felt the motorways were “less safe” than those with hard shoulders.

Dr Billings has now been assured by Highways England that they would be adding stopped vehicle detection technology and increasing ERAs in an upgrade.

Statement from Highways England

In a statement regarding Both Jason and Nargis’ inquests, Highways England said: “Our deepest sympathies are with the families, and all those affected by these tragic incidents.

“Although we do not believe Highways England has committed any offence we will of course cooperate fully in any investigation. Every road death is a tragic loss of life and we are absolutely committed to making our roads as safe as they can be”.

Meera is now honouring Dev’s memory by working towards creating a safer network.

“For me, it will always be about making sure drivers and their loved ones get home every night, safe and sound,” she says.

“I am working in an advisory capacity alongside the Department for Transport and Highways England to hold ministers and executives to account, to ensure promises made around the action plan are delivered.

“The main priority for me right now, is the upcoming education campaign, which includes vital information around ERAs, which have been made as visible as possible with more frequent signs on approach, so drivers are better aware of where to stop in an emergency.”

Claire – who is crowdfunding a judicial review with solicitors Irwin Mitchell in an attempt to get smart motorways banned – says she misses her husband of 27 years every day.

"He was a big noisy bugger and we have a nice little house, so you always knew when he was here," she says.

“Now I'm just always sitting in the quiet. I miss him more than ever.”

Claire, who is also considering a civil suit against Highways England, adds:

“I’ll keep on fighting until we get the hard shoulder back. I won’t accept anything less.”

Statement from the Department for Transport

A spokesman for the Department for Transport told us: “Our thoughts and deepest sympathies are with the loved ones of anyone injured or killed on smart motorways.

“As soon as the Transport Secretary took office he commissioned an urgent stocktake of the evidence on smart motorway safety.

“He has recently requested that Highways England deliver early on certain aspects of the 18-point Action Plan, including the roll out of stopped vehicle detection.”

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