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Smart motorways legal challenge

13 July 2020

The wife of a man killed when he failed to reach an emergency refuge area on the M1 has seen a groundswell of support from the disabled community as she seeks a judicial review into the safety of smart motorways.

Claire Mercer’s husband Jason died in June last year, along with another man, after they were hit by a lorry while exchanging details after a small collision on a stretch of road which used to be a hard shoulder.

Smart motorways see hard shoulders used as active lanes when it is deemed the road needs more capacity. Speed limits on smart motorways can also be varied. The government has committed to rolling out around 300 miles of smart motorways by 2025.

It takes Highways England just under 20 minutes to spot a breakdown on CCTV. There are around 30 breakdowns on smart motorways every day.

MPs have also raised concerns that the emergency refuge areas which replace ongoing hard shoulders are too far apart.

Campaign groups, including Disability Rights UK, say they pose unacceptable risks for disabled people, and are backing the legal challenge.

DR UK CEO Kamran Mallick said: “Highways England has failed to recognise the risks posed for disabled people who break down or need to exit their vehicles in emergencies. This lack of consideration is a breach of the Equality Act which discriminates against wheelchair users.

“The advice for drivers who get stuck on smart motorways is to exit the vehicle from the passenger side. For wheelchair users with adapted vehicles, exit is from a ramp, normally to the rear of a vehicle. Without a hard shoulder, it is impossible to deploy these safely.

“Carers who drive cannot exit from the passenger side where the wheelchair is blocking the exit. Disabled drivers would have to run an impromptu and deadly assault course. Is the expectation that disabled drivers, implausibly assuming we can, haul ourselves across the passenger seat, fall out the door onto the tarmac, belly roll to the crash barriers, and then climb over?

“The lack of safe exit strategies for disabled people means we are sitting ducks for other traffic to hit whether we stay in our vehicles or against all odds manage to exit our vehicles. Smart motorways are about as unsafe as it gets for us.”