AA ‘won’t stop’ to help drivers in smart motorway lanes

The AA has become the latest organisation to raise concerns about smart motorways – after telling its breakdown crews not to stop in them to help stranded motorists.

It says staff must instead head to a ‘safe location’ and wait for the driver’s vehicle to be moved there by Highways England.

Motorways across the West Midlands have been transformed into smart motorways, with the hard shoulders turned into an active lane. In the event of a breakdown, overhead signs let drivers know they should keep the lane clear.

Large stretches of the M5 and M6 have already been turned into smart motorways and extensive roadworks are currently under way on the M6 in Staffordshire to extend the four-lane system towards Manchester. But there have been increasing calls for a review of the system following a number of accidents involving motorists stranded on the inside lane.

One fatal accident happened on the M6 in 2016, when Anthony Marston, of Leegomery, Telford, stopped his Mercedes E300 estate, which was towing a trailer loaded with a Peugeot Partner van, between junctions 10 for Wolverhampton and 10a for the M54.

The scene of the M6 crash. Inset (top) Michael Preston, and Anthony Marston

A Scania R450 lorry being driven by Michael Preston smashed into the trailer and Mr Marston was caught between it and his Mercedes. He suffered multiple severe injuries from which he died. Preston was later jailed for 32 months for causing death by dangerous driving.

The policy of the AA was confirmed in a BBC documentary on the controversial roads and comes as families whose loved ones have been killed apply for a judicial review challenging the system.

Tony Rich, a former AA patrolman of the year, said drivers stuck on the roads must wait as long as 17 minutes to be moved, due to problems such as breaking down out of sight of cameras supposed to monitor motorways for stranded cars. On other occasions these cameras are simply not working, he added. Explaining the AA’s smart motoway policy, he said: “We’ll contact the customer to say ‘we can’t stop where you are’. We will contact Highways England, go to a safe area and wait for the vehicle to be delivered.”

Warning of scenarios that can increase danger, he added: “It could be that the vehicle may have an electrical fault and its lights are not working... it can be the case that nobody notices it.”

Drivers can be put at risk by smart motorways because most are fitted with sensors which can only detect queuing traffic. The documentary team found sensors which can actually detect stationary vehicles are fitted to just two sections of the M25 – a mere 18 per cent of the UK’s smart motorway network.

'A unique character'

Highways England says that, subject to funding, it will fit the sensors to smart motorways built in the future – but it has made no commitment to existing roads or those already under construction.

The death of Mr Marston on the M6 came as he was working as a courier, having previously served in the Gulf War. He left a wife and two children. His widow Sue spoke after the court sentencing, saying: “Tony was a unique character and his death leaves a massive gap in our lives and hearts.

“I can only hope anyone who reads about this case and who hears about the sentence will reflect on how we use our roads, and if everyone takes more care then maybe others won’t have to go through what our family have had to.”

Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason, 44, was also killed after stopping to exchange details with another motorist on the M1, said: “I want smart motorways stopped. It’s akin to manslaughter to remove the hard shoulder. I’m absolutely terrified that the next occasion is going to involve a coachload of children.”

Mr Mercer and the other driver were both killed when they were hit by a lorry near Sheffield last June. Mrs Mercer, who plans to sue the agency over her husband’s death, accused Highways England of “keeping quiet” the fact the sensors had not been widely installed.

The DofT says it is publishing a review into smart motorway technology within the coming weeks. Highways England says it is committed to safety.

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