My husband Jason’s ashes are on the windowsill. I made a pledge after he was cremated that when the campaign to ban so-called ‘smart motorways’ is over, I will fire him into space.
He’d have loved that. But it won’t be happening this week, despite the Government’s decision to halt the creation of 120 more miles of these deadly roads.
The announcement on Tuesday followed at least 53 deaths in a five-year period, countless accidents and an urgent recommendation by the Commons Transport Select Committee.
It is a welcome development. But it is not enough. Because National Highways are still pressing ahead illogically with the completion of another 100 miles of smart motorways, also known as ‘all-lanes running’ motorways.
Claire Mercer, pictured, launched a campaign against Smart motorways after her husband of almost 10 years Jason was killed following a minor collision on the M1 northbound near Sheffield. Six minutes after coming to a halt, he hand Alexandru Murgeanu were killed after being struck by a truck driven by Prezemyslaw Szuba
I have another name for them. They are deathtraps. And they are the reason that, four months before our tenth wedding anniversary in 2019, Jason was killed and I was widowed.
He died after a minor collision on the M1 northbound near Sheffield. His car and a van driven by a 22-year-old man, named Alexandru Murgeanu, were forced to stop in an active lane — the inside lane — because there was no hard shoulder.
After the collision, traffic continued to use that lane despite the two vehicles that had stopped in it. Many drivers managed to see the danger in time and swerve around it.
But, six minutes on, a Mercedes lorry driven by Prezemyslaw Szuba smashed into the two vehicles, killing both Jason and Mr Murgeanu.
The lorry driver was sentenced to ten months in prison after he admitted careless driving. But as he said at Jason’s inquest, the crash would not have happened if a hard shoulder had been in place.
I have been fighting ever since my husband was killed to bring back this simple safety measure and prevent more unnecessary deaths.
Mrs Mercer, pictured with her husband Jason, right, believes the government could make the roads safer by flicking a switch on the gantries above the motorway to ‘close’ the nearside lane and turn it back into a hard shoulder
It need not cost the Government anything. The technology is already in place. All they have to do is flick a switch so that signs on the gantries above the motorway ‘turn off’ the inside lane and change it back into a hard shoulder.
Instead, the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has announced that the number of lay-bys on existing smart motorways — lay-bys where drivers in trouble are expected to find refuge from the thundering traffic — will be increased in number by about 50 per cent, so that they are no more than a mile apart.
These additional 150 lay-bys will cost £390 million. Yet the tragic fact is there will continue to be fatalities because, in many cases of accidents and breakdowns, vehicles have to stop where they are. There’s no question of them being able to struggle on for an extra mile.
We have also been promised that the average response time to close an active lane following a breakdown or crash will be cut from 17 minutes to ten. Again, that is no solution.
It doesn’t take ten minutes for a lorry to plough into the back of a parked vehicle. It doesn’t even take ten seconds.
The official toll of deaths on smart motorways tells you everything you need to know. Between 2015 and 2019, when Jason was killed, there were 53 fatal accidents — a fatality rate that was one-third higher than on comparable roads with hard shoulders.
But amid all these statistics, some of the most important figures are invisible. Near misses are not recorded, for example, even though CCTV cameras are supposed to cover every inch of the 360 miles of smart motorways in Britain. (It doesn’t help when 14 per cent of those cameras are out of action, which is what a probe by the Transport Secretary found last year.)
As the organiser of the campaign Smart Motorways Kill, I am sent dash-cam footage almost every day by shocked drivers who have survived a brush with death.
The most frightening sequences are filmed at night. Cars travelling on the inside lane see vehicles looming up in the darkness that are suddenly revealed to be stationary.
Drivers have a split second to react — often with no choice but to swerve into the path of other vehicles.
Given that so many near-misses happen every day, we should be getting rid of smart motorways altogether. To halt the programme of extensions, yet to keep the ones we already have and complete those currently under conversion, makes no sense.
I believe the Government can be made to see that.
The government halted the roll out of new smart motorways following the Daily Mail’s campaign
Already, the Daily Mail has brought about the first changes, thanks to a tireless campaign and some brilliant investigative journalism.
The paper’s reports last September by Susie Coen, who worked undercover in a National Highways CCTV control centre monitoring smart motorways, could not be ignored because they proved these roads were as deadly as our own campaign had warned.
The Mail even revealed that staff watching the CCTV images knew this themselves, and were heard to admit it.
Now, at least, Grant Shapps has acknowledged the flaws, praising the work done by this newspaper. That means the message is getting through. He also said that some of the dangers were worse than he had realised, worse even than many campaigners knew.
As I say, his department’s decision to halt work on 120 further miles of smart motorway until April 2024, while safety data is analysed, is a significant step. I am certain that data analysis will back up what we already know — that these all-lanes-running schemes cost lives. But why wait for more deaths on the existing stretches of motorway?
The Department of Transport wants to analyse data from earlier crashes before deciding the future of smart motorways
Personally, I am terrified to travel on them. I have done so only once since my husband died. We hired a coach to go to London, for a protest march: we carried coffins across Westminster Bridge to Parliament, in memory of loved ones we had lost. But I couldn’t bear to look at the road as we were driving. I had to sit at the back of the bus, facing away from the window.
It was more than two years after his death before I could bring myself to visit the spot where Jason was killed. A Daily Mail photographer asked me to stand on the bridge above it, with eight lanes of traffic below, for a picture.
I steeled myself. We’d been there just a couple of minutes when there was the most horrendous noise. The photographer and I jumped. Below us, a lorry had collided with a car and was shunting it, side-on.
The vehicles came to a halt in the live, inside lane — just a couple of hundred yards from where Jason died. I burst into tears, as the traffic below began steering around them.
Thankfully, both drivers appeared to get out unharmed. They were just one more unrecorded statistic.
My husband was much more than a statistic. He was a wonderful man — my mother used to call him the biggest teddy bear she knew. People saw his Mohican hairstyle and his piercings and thought he must be a fan of noisy rock . . . which he was.
But he also loved classical music, and was teaching himself to read Latin. He’d sit at the computer, winding down after work, learning the conjugations of irregular verbs with a whisky in his hand.
Astronomy was his passion. On clear nights, he’d go out with his telescope. One day, Jason is going to be up with those stars. I’ll keep my promise to him.
That will be when our pleas for basic safety finally prevail. For that to happen, all the hard shoulders must be restored.