Coroners write to National Highways over smart motorway fears as agency spends £500k on legal fees

28 November 2023, 08:19 | Updated: 28 November 2023, 09:54

National Highways has been contacted by coroners over smart motorways
National Highways has been contacted by coroners over smart motorways. Picture: Alamy
Henry Riley

By Henry Riley

Coroners have written to National Highways to express concerns following the verdict of inquests relating to the multiple fatalities on smart motorways.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

The public body charged with operating, maintaining and improving motorways is under increasing scrutiny after figures obtained by LBC showed it has spent over half a million pounds on legal costs on eleven inquests.

Eight coroners from across the country have issued a "Regulation 28 Report to Prevent Future Deaths" directly to National Highways following inquests since 2018 where a motorist or passenger has been killed on a smart motorway.

The campaign group Smart Motorways Kill estimated there have been over 100 deaths linked to smart motorways since 2016, with its founder Claire Mercer saying "many more" have been injured.

Conservative MP Karl McCartney, who sits on the Transport Select Committee, told LBC "the figures are worrying", adding: "National Highways need to attend coroners' inquests and make their case, but their case has been built on a false premise for many years."

LBC can also reveal that the agency, tasked with the implementation and regulation of "smart motorways', has spent £525,549.25 on legal fees.

Read more: 'People need to stay away if they can - it's not safe': Whistleblower tells LBC a smart motorway outage is risking lives

Transport Secretary discusses 'smart motorways' with Nick Ferrari

The over half-a-million-pound sum relates to outside legal costs incurred by National Highways during eleven inquests since 2019 involving fatalities on the stretches of the motorway.

But, Transport Secretary Mark Harper told LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast that smart motorways remain some of the safest.

"Smart Motorways remain the safest roads of the strategic roads network," Mr Harper told Nick, before adding "the public don't have confidence in them."

He revealed there would be no new smart motorways and money would be spent in improving public confidence in the existing schemes.

McCartney, who also previously served as a transport minister, added that it was "a large amount of money which could have been spelt elsewhere". He told LBC: "We need to rescind the policy that was so-called smart motorways. I have never accepted that smart motorways are safer than other motorways."

His concerns over smart motorways were echoed by Labour MP Sarah Champion, who told LBC: "The fact that eight coroners now have written to National Highways to express their concerns over the roads, because of the multiple casualties and deaths, and they're still trying to fight and defend their position, is immoral."

The senior Labour MP, who chairs the International Development Committee, added: "Let's remember the half-a-million-pounds is taxpayers money, that is being used to fight against taxpayers who have died because of these smart motorways.

"It just feels like National Highways have gone rogue. They are doubling down on these ridiculous smart motorways, and are now using taxpayers money to justify their position."

Read more: Rishi Sunak scraps smart motorways plan citing soaring costs and a lack of public trust

Nick Simmons, the CEO of RoadPeace, said: "Our members have been very concerned about smart motorways for a long time, and say that they are not safe."

Simmons, who represents those bereaved and injured by road crashes, as well as their families, told LBC that their members have "found it very difficult to engage with National Highways and to point out some of these issues".

He added: "If you speak to members of the general public, they just instinctively don't feel safe when they’re driving on a smart motorway. They're wrong and they need to be stopped."

A spokesperson for National Highways spokesperson told LBC: "Any loss of life is a tragedy and our sympathies remain with the families affected.

"Safety is our highest priority and it's important we engage fully with inquests. This is not about defending smart motorways.

"Our attendance is to assist coroners in determining the cause and circumstances of each incident by providing factual information, including how our roads operate and are designed.

"We and the government continue to invest £900 million in further safety improvements on existing smart motorways."