Smart motorway information campaign postponed by Highways England ‘who seem ‘determined not to educate public’

The first-ever smart motorway television safety campaign has been postponed despite urgent calls for motorists to be educated about them, The Telegraph can reveal.

In March last year, Highways England was given £5 million of taxpayers’ cash to launch “national and targeted” public awareness broadcasts so motorists know what to do if they break down in a live lane where there is no hard shoulder.

But, despite repeatedly saying they were “committed” to unveiling the campaign in the New Year, Highways England has admitted they have delayed its launch.

The three-month postponement will come as an acute embarrassment to the Government-owned company after a coroner this week said it was a “sad indictment” the public had not been educated about smart motorways which “present an ongoing risk of future deaths”.

On Tuesday night, Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, demanded an “urgent meeting” with Highways England to discuss its progress in making the new motorway network safer. 

The move comes after David Urpeth, South Yorkshire’s senior coroner, called for an urgent review into the safety of smart motorways after finding that scrapping the hard shoulder on the M1 contributed to the “unlawful killings” of Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, in 2019.

Mr Mercer’s widow, Claire (below), said on Tuesday that Highways England’s failure to meet its own deadline for the campaign showed it “lacked real commitment” to educating motorists.

Credit: PA

Mrs Mercer, 44, remains convinced her husband did not know what smart motorways.

Mr Mercer and Mr Murgeanu were hit by a lorry after stopping on a live lane of the M1 to exchange insurance details following a minor prang. 

Although the coroner found Prezemyslaw Szuba, the 40-year-old Polish lorry driver jailed for killing the men, was the “primary cause” of the deaths, he stressed it was important people were told how to use smart motorways to prevent yet more deaths. 

It is understood the decision to postpone the launch of the television campaign stemmed from concerns it could undermine the Government’s overall message that travel should be avoided during lockdown. 

However, Mrs Mercer said: “It has always astonished me that there has never been a national publicity campaign about smart motorways after their introduction in 2006. Perhaps if there had been far fewer people would have died.

“Instead, inquests and newspaper reports about those who have perished after becoming stranded on live lanes have been the way many people learn about the dangers smart motorways pose.”

A Department for Transport spokesman said the TV campaign will launch in early Spring to “improve people’s confidence in using all types of motorways, including what to do in the event of a breakdown in a live lane.”

He added that “as soon as the Transport Secretary took office he recognised the concerns around smart motorway safety” and demanded an urgent “stocktake of the evidence”. 

He met families of those who had died as well as motoring groups. 

“The stocktake found that in most ways smart motorways are as safe as, or safer than, the conventional motorways they replaced and the Transport Secretary therefore tasked Highways England with delivering a robust 18-point Action Plan to make them safer still,” he said.

“In light of the findings from the Coroner, the Transport Secretary has called an urgent meeting with Highways England to discuss their progress on that plan.”