EXCLUSIVE: Coroner slams smart motorway after father-of-four in his 40s is killed riding his motorbike into Land Rover stranded in M4 inside lane
A coroner has slammed a smart motorway after a father-of-four was killed riding his motorcycle into a stationary vehicle that had become stranded on the inside lane of the M4.
Zoltan Torok, a 42-year-old engineer, suffered ‘multiple catastrophic injuries’ when he struck a broken down grey Land Rover Discovery stuck in the ‘inner slow lane’ close to Junction 6 of the motorway near Slough, Berkshire, on May 7 last year.
The Land Rover became stuck in an area that was being converted into a smart motorway and, as a result, there was ‘no hard shoulder or safety lane to its nearside’.
Smart motorways have their hard shoulders scrapped and converted into an extra lane – meaning motorists can become marooned in fast-moving traffic. If a car breaks down, the gantries above should instead show a red X signalling the lane is closed
But a police collision investigator told an inquest into Mr Torok’s death at Reading Town Hall last week that the fatal crash would not have taken place if there had been a ‘traditional hard shoulder’ on the M4.
An ‘experienced mechanical engineer’ also highlighted the risk to drivers who ‘will become accustomed to treating the left or inner lane of motorways as a live running lane even when it remains a conventional hard shoulder’.
Assistant Area Coroner Ian Wade QC has now penned a report to Highways England maligning the smart motorway for contributing to the death of the motorcyclist, citing concerns that similar fatal crashes will occur if changes are not made immediately.
His prevention of future death report follows in the steps of four coroners who raised concerns last year that scrapping the hard shoulder to create a fourth lane risks more people dying – with at least 38 lives being lost on smart motorways between 2015 and 2020.
The inquest heard Mr Torok was driving his black Honda motorcycle at a lawful speed on the M4 westbound in the inner slow lane at around 3pm.
Zoltan Torok, a 42-year-old engineer, suffered ‘multiple catastrophic injuries’ when he struck a stranded vehicle on the M4 near Slough, Berkshire
Traffic passes along a section of the M4 which is currently being converted to a smart motorway in Slough on January 13 earlier this year
Smart motorways have claimed at least 38 lives over five years: Here’s what you need to know
What is a smart motorway?
Smart motorways involve a range of methods to manage traffic flow, most controversially using the hard shoulder as a live running lane.
Refuges where drivers can stop are placed every mile or so. Variable speed limits are also used.
How many are there?
Motorways with sections where the hard shoulder has been removed include the M1, M4, M5, M6, M25 and M62. The smart network stretches to around 500 miles in England, with an additional 300 miles planned by 2025.
There are currently more than 20 sections of ‘smart motorways’ on seven different motorways
What are the benefits?
Smart motorways are designed to increase capacity without the more disruptive and costly process of widening carriageways.
But are they safe?
Concerns have been raised about incidents where stopped vehicles are hit from behind. Highways England has insisted smart motorways are ‘at least as safe as, or safer than, the conventional motorways they replaced’.
But a survey of drivers by the RAC found 70 per cent felt removing the hard shoulder on motorways compromised safety.
How many have died?
BBC Panorama in January last year found that at least 38 people had died on stretches of smart motorways over the previous five years.
What do officials say?
An ‘evidence stocktake’ published by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last March stated that the risk of a collision between moving vehicles is lower on smart motorways than conventional motorways.
But the chance of a crash involving a moving vehicle and a stationary vehicle was found to be higher when the hard shoulder was removed.
An 18-point action plan included more refuges for emergencies and faster rollout of a radar-based system to spot stranded vehicles.
Are smart motorways used in other European countries?
The vast majority of motorway-style roads in Europe have a permanent emergency lane.
This stretch of the M4 was under construction to be converted to a smart motorway, but ‘to all intents and purposes it had the intended characteristics of a smart motorway’.
Specifically, this meant there was ‘no run-off lane or safety lane or hard shoulder, but all lanes were running lanes’.
Instead, a ‘solid continuous concrete wall’ ran along the inside of the inner slow lane.
A Land Rover ‘suffered an unexpected and inexplicable mechanical defect rendering it not possible for it to proceed to a refuge’, but instead had to come to a stop in the inner lane just short of the exit slip road at Junction 6.
The driver and passenger of the vehicle were able to leave the vehicle and find safety beyond the roadside barrier.
However, their presence standing at the side of the motorway ‘momentarily distracted Zoltan’s attention from the road ahead’.
He crashed into the rear of the stationary Land Rover without decreasing his speed and was pronounced dead at the scene.
Highlighting four areas of concern that must be addressed by Highways England, Mr Wade said: ‘On the date of the death the particular section of the M4 motorway was not completed as a smart motorway, but was substantially in course of conversion such that to all intents and purposes it had the intended characteristics of a smart motorway, specifically that there was no run-off lane or safety lane or hard shoulder, but all lanes were running lanes.
‘The edge of the near side of the inner lane was a solid continuous concrete wall.
‘The inquest heard evidence from the police collision investigator that the collision would not have occurred if the broken down Land Rover had been able to pull out of the running lane into a refuge or onto a traditional hard shoulder.’
Highlighting a second area of concern, the coroner said the hazard created by the broken down vehicle was ‘compounded by the unexpected proximity of the occupants standing immediately next to the running lane’.
Although they were on the safe side of the barrier, Mr Wade said the presence of stranded motorists roadside is likely to be distracting for drivers travelling at a ‘typical and lawful speed’ and, on the evidence heard at the inquest, ‘was a distraction to the deceased’.
He also referenced evidence given by a mechanical engineer with over 40 years’ experience in the motor industry.
The expert said the policy of mixing smart motorways with with traditional hard shoulder motorways ‘created a latent risk that road users will become accustomed to treating the inner lane of motorways as a live running lane even when it remains a conventional hard shoulder’.
They added that road users who break down are at risk even if they follow guidelines and pull into the inside lane.
In a final point, Mr Wade added: ‘The essential purpose of a motorway as a multi-lane high speed direct communication between locations likely to be long distances apart is both undermined, and has a tendency to potentiate risks to road users, if the running lanes are liable suddenly and unexpectedly to become blocked in a dynamic situation, with no refuge available to the stranded vehicle.’
It follows official figures published in September last year showing that death rates on smart motorways are up to a third higher than on those with a hard shoulder.
The disclosure blew a hole in repeated claims by ministers and highways bosses that smart motorways are ‘as safe as, or safer than’ their conventional counterparts.
Department for Transport statistics showed for the last two years for which figures are available, ‘live lane fatality rates’ were higher on ‘all lane running’ (ALR) roads.
Campaigners, including one who lost her husband after he broke down in his car on a smart motorway, are calling for hard shoulders to remain in place.
Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason died in Yorkshire after he was ploughed into by a lorry when his car became stranded on the M1, said: ‘The “smart” bit of smart motorways is not working.
‘Our motorways need a real world back up plan. Software, firewalls and internet connections are not infallible, nor are drivers. We need a hard shoulder.’
Mr Torok’s death also comes as a supposedly ‘groundbreaking’ radar system that should alert smart motorway control rooms to breakdowns within 20 seconds was found to give a host of false warnings – while missing stranded cars.
Control room staff say Stopped Vehicle Detection – which is to be expanded along the entire smart motorway network at a cost of £122million – is impossible to rely on.
It currently ‘protects’ 24 miles on the M25 around London. It is also in operation on sections of the M3, M20 and M1.
Claire Mercer, 44, whose husband Jason was killed on a stretch of the M1 with no hard shoulder in June 2019
Claire Mercer’s husband Jason died in Yorkshire after he was ploughed into by a lorry when his car became stranded on the M1 (pictured together)
Staff view alerts from the system, which makes a ‘groaning’ sound when it is triggered, as ‘low priority’ because it goes off so often. Slow-moving traffic and even road signs set it off.
But in a series of logs seen by the Mail, staff say it often misses breakdowns.
A whistleblower also claimed staff operating England’s smart motorways are ‘petrified’ of road users being killed following a string of computer crashes last year.
Three system failures in April 2021 meant that across hundreds of miles of motorway, the digital signs which inform drivers of speed limits or lane closures were left ‘unusable’.
The signs, also called gantries, could not be changed along parts of the M1, M4, M5 and M62, leading an insider at National Highways (formerly England Highways) to warn that ‘someone is going to get killed.’
Highways England has been contacted for comment.