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House of Commons Hansard
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All-lane Running Motorways
22 January 2020
Volume 670

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the safety of all-lane running motorways.

Last year, in June, my constituent Jason Mercer said goodbye to his wife Claire at 8 am. Fifteen minutes later, he and another motorist were dead. Jason had been involved in a minor collision on the M1 in South Yorkshire, but in March 2017 the hard shoulder on that section of motorway had been converted into a full-time running lane, so, with no emergency refuge in sight, Jason and his fellow motorist were forced to stop in a live lane to exchange details. A steep bank immediately behind the safety barrier meant there was nowhere to move off the road, and instead they were left exposed. A lorry hit one of the stationary vehicles, killing them both instantly.

The safety features promised when the motorway was converted have still not been installed. Jason is one of the growing number of victims of so-called “smart motorways” on which the flow of traffic is controlled by remotely adjustable speed limits. Specifically, Jason was killed on the all-lane running, or ALR, motorway on which the hard shoulder has been permanently removed. Tragically, Jason is not the only victim of that ill-conceived scheme. That same 16-mile section of the M1 has seen five fatalities in just 10 months. Nationally, 2018 figures show 107 deaths across the whole of our motorway system and—let me repeat—I have had five fatalities in the past 10 months, in near-identical circumstances, on 16 miles of road. I acknowledge that ALR schemes can deliver capacity improvements, but they do so at the cost of motorists’ lives.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this important issue. Does she agree that that could have been avoided had police advice been listened to? In the Parliament of 2010 to 2015, I went to see the Minister’s predecessor with the South Yorkshire police, who had said, “This arrangement is not safe.” Recently, Chief Inspector Darren Starkey of the South Yorkshire police wrote to me that

“any stranded vehicle, in any live lane or carriageway on any motorway or other strategic road presents an immediate safety risk”,

but that when there is a hard shoulder, those

“risks are less than being in the live lane”.

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I thank my hon. Friend for making that point and for all his campaigning on the issue. It was not only the police but the local authorities, the other emergency services, the RAC and the AA—everyone with any common sense knew that taking away the hard shoulder was going to lead to fatalities.

Hazards presented by the removal of the hard shoulder are manifold. The hard shoulder allows stricken motorists to stop in relative safety, outside the flow of traffic. In its absence, at a minimum, there should be emergency refuges along the carriageway. Mr O’Sullivan, the chief executive of Highways England, recently revealed to the Select Committee on Transport that 38% of all breakdowns on ALR motorways took place in live lanes, not in refuges. Even having refuges, therefore, does not keep people safe.

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Dev Naran, a young constituent of mine, lost his life suddenly in 2018 in an accident on the M6. His parents are in Parliament today. The coroner’s regulation 28 report on his death raised some of the huge issues that the hon. Lady is exploring: despite the name, there is no automated system for spotting broken-down vehicles and where there is, at one place on the M25, it is overwhelmed by false positives; we do not know how often screens that are used manually to look for broken-down vehicles are refreshed, or how many screens an individual has to look at; and there is no consistency in the spacing of refuges, as she said, and huge stretches have no refuges at all. Officials have been too blithe about the problems she is pointing out. I hope that the Minister will stand up to the officials and take the huge problems seriously.

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I echo those concerns, and the hon. Gentleman’s hope that the Minister will now do something. My heart bleeds for the families.

Reaching safety is particularly challenging in newer schemes, where refuges are being spaced further and further apart. The M42 active traffic management pilot placed refuges 500 to 800 metres apart, but in newer ALR schemes that has increased to roughly 2,500 metres. To be explicit, someone needs to travel 2.5 kilometres, or just over 1.5 miles—with a blow-out or an overheating engine, or after being in an accident—before being able to get out of a live traffic lane. The greater the distance between refuges, therefore, the less likely it is that a motorist will be able to reach safety. Motorists are instead left exposed, stopped in live traffic. I can only assume—I am sorry to say this—that that decision was made to save the Government money.

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Will the hon. Lady give way?

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Will the hon. Lady give way?

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I will, multiply.

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Does the hon. Lady agree that not only motorists but workers in recovery vehicles need extra protection from smart motorways? One way of achieving that might be to enable those workers to use red lights rather than the simple amber lights that they use at the moment. That would afford them greater protection from other vehicles that might otherwise not see them on the road.

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I will come on to the existing lighting system, but yes, motorway rescue is walking into a death trap.

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Does the hon. Lady agree that one way in which to deal with the situation is to increase the speed at which the gantry signs change to close the lanes, so that people have more warning? Does she also agree that we need quicker access for the emergency services to deal with accidents when they happen?

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I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I will come on to the reality of the stopped-vehicle protection system, which unfortunately is somewhat shocking.

The smart motorway is meant to be smart, and its systems should come into play—for example, to close lanes to traffic automatically—but that of course relies on the stranded vehicle being detected. It pains me to say, however, that the vast majority of England’s smart motorways are unable to deliver on that. Almost all smart motorways are underpinned by Highways England’s MIDAS—motorway incident detection and automatic signalling—system which, by monitoring traffic flow, allows congestion to be managed. But the system has a significant and life-limiting flaw: it is unable to identify a lone stationary vehicle.

A 2016 Highways England report found that detecting a stranded vehicle took an average of 17 minutes. Safety is compromised still further by Highways England allowing up to three minutes to close a lane once a stationary vehicle has been detected. In Jason Mercer’s case, detecting his stationary vehicle took more than six minutes, and the lane in which he was stranded was only closed after the crash that claimed his life.

Stationary vehicle detection, or SVD, technology reduces the time taken to spot stranded vehicles by an average of 16 minutes. Highways England committed to fitting SVD throughout the smart motorway system in 2016. That has not happened. Four years on, SVD is in operation on only two sections of the M25, covering just 24 miles of England’s more than 230 miles of smart motorway. The Highways England chief executive acknowledged that, had SVD been installed, a number of fatalities on all-lane running motorways could have been prevented.

Even where SVD is in place, questions remain about its effectiveness.

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I thank my hon. Friend for securing a debate on this incredibly important issue. Over recent months, sadly, there have been a number of fatalities and accidents on the stretch of the M1 by Luton. Since raising the issue, a number of residents have echoed concerns about the safety of that stretch of smart motorway. Does my hon. Friend agree that any review by the Government is welcome, but that including in it all the voices of road users and workers is vital?

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I completely agree, and I compliment my hon. Friend on already raising the issue in the Chamber. The consultation was always flawed, and all the evidence mounting is just not being listened to.

A recent report in The Sunday Times revealed that the system’s own chief designer has highlighted weaknesses in the system, warning:

“The density of traffic at higher volumes means it is very difficult to detect stopped lone vehicles without an unimaginable number of false alarms.”

The Minister must not believe Highways England when it tells him that SVD is the panacea for safety improvements for all-lane running schemes. It is not; it is seriously flawed.

The risks to motorists do not end when a stranded vehicle is detected. Once detected, the system should close the lane that the stranded vehicle is in by marking it with a red X on the gantry. In 2016, non-compliance with red X signs was 7% to 8%. However, research by the RAC this year found that more than a fifth of motorists had driven in a lane closed by a red X sign in the past year. If a motorist is detected and lane closures are put in place, their chance of being hit by an oncoming vehicle remains alarmingly high. It will require a concerted education and enforcement programme to reduce non-compliance, and I urge the Minister to commit to that without delay.

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My hon. Friend is making a passionate and compelling case. Those concerns were first raised by the Select Committee on Transport, chaired by Dame Louise Ellman, back in 2016. They could—and should—have been addressed much earlier. Some of those who tragically lost their lives could have been saved.

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That is the sad reality. I will come to the Transport Committee’s damning quote. I thank my hon. Friend for her work, as Chair of the Committee, to hold Highways England to account.

The Department for Transport has been aware of the dangers of ALR for some time. Many risks were highlighted in the 2016 Transport Committee report that my hon. Friend mentioned; it concluded that the Committee was unable to support ALR due to fundamental safety concerns. The Department for Transport, in contrast, argued that ALR is not only safe, but safer than traditional motorways. That position is hard to comprehend, but I have tried to figure it out. It is based on the twisted logic of offsetting the safety improvements of a managed motorway environment against the hazards of removing the hard shoulder. The issue with that logic is that those factors are not exclusionary. It is perfectly possible to maintain a hard shoulder on a smart motorway, but it costs more.

By suggesting that the risks are a necessary component of the improvements, the Department unjustifiably downplays the inherent dangers. The Transport Committee’s report labelled that approach “disingenuous” and robustly warned against decreasing the risk of some hazards to justify an increase in others. Highlighting the intrinsic problems of all-lane running compared with other smart motorway schemes, the Committee was damning in its criticism of the Department. It stated:

“The All Lane Running design has been chosen on the basis of cost savings, and it is not acceptable for the Department to proceed with a less-safe design, putting people’s lives at risk, in order to cut costs.”

Motoring organisations, including the RAC and the AA, have been warning for some time that ALR presents an unacceptable risk—concerns echoed by local authorities and police forces. Yesterday, it came to light that the AA will no longer carry out roadside assistance on all-lane running motorways due to serious safety concerns. How bad does it have to get before the Minister will act? Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council, in response to the consultation on the conversion of junctions 32 to 35a of the M1, warned starkly that,

“from an operational perspective, the emergency services suggest that the risk of collisions involving stationary vehicles...is an unacceptable one which will have serious and potentially fatal consequences.”

Jason Mercer was one of those fatal consequences. Last year, there were nine fatalities on smart motorways.

There is no evidence that ALR can ever be delivered safely. I therefore strongly believe the Government must stop the roll-out with immediate effect. Until the obvious and intrinsic risks of removing the hard shoulder are addressed, existing schemes should revert to traditional motorways from today. At a minimum, Highways England must prioritise retrofitting stationary vehicle detection to existing ALR schemes, with a clear deadline for when that work will be completed. I support the RAC’s call for existing schemes to be retrofitted with refuges no greater than one mile apart, but I would go further and ask for the originally proposed 500 to 800 metre intervals. While that work is undertaken, the hard shoulder should be reinstated. If it is not possible to install refuges, the scheme should not go ahead on that road.

Urgent action—both enforcement and education—is needed to improve compliance with red X signs on gantries. Safety of motorists must always be paramount. Before the scheme even began, the Government were inundated with warnings about the intrinsic risks of all-lane running and were urged to rethink their approach to increasing motorway capacity. It is totally unacceptable for a Government to risk lives in the name of cost savings.

I cannot change the past. I cannot bring Jason Mercer back to Claire. But it is in the Minister’s gift to stop more deaths.

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Order. The debate is heavily oversubscribed for a half-hour debate. Members may wish to lobby the Backbench Business Committee for a longer debate, given the considerable national interest on this subject. Tracey Crouch has asked for, and has been granted, time to speak.

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We are all interested to hear the Minister’s response, so I will be brief, not least because the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) made a brilliant speech in which she articulated everyone’s concerns about smart motorways. This is the second Westminster Hall debate on all-lane running motorways in which I have spoken, the first being about the safety of roadside recovery workers. That was as a consequence of the partner of a constituent being killed on a motorway.

A section of the M20 that goes through my constituency is being converted into a smart motorway, and I have been concerned about the outcome since that was first proposed. Many constituents are petrified about its completion, not least because, since I raised the issue last year, there have unfortunately been a number of high-profile fatalities. When I have spoken on the radio and been quoted in the papers, hundreds of people have got in touch about their concerns and experiences, many of which are incredibly traumatic. We need to pay attention to drivers’ experiences on smart motorways.

I want to press on the Minister a point that the hon. Lady articulated incredibly well, about the statistics that are given to Ministers. When he looks at statistics from Highways England, he needs to disaggregate the types of accident. An accident on a motorway caused by someone driving at 90 mph, or a collision between a moving lorry and a car, is completely different from someone who has come to a halt on a smart motorway being hit by a moving vehicle—quite often a heavy goods vehicle. The statistics given are apples and pears; the Minister must drill down into them, because they are not safe otherwise.

I strongly encourage the Minister to revisit the cost of creating all-lane motorways and to consider whether the money could be better spent on the wider road and transport network, instead of on this increasingly dubious and dangerous upgrade plan.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Paisley. I am standing in for the Roads Minister, Baroness Vere, who will be watching the debate closely, and I will meet her afterwards. Let me congratulate and thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for raising this issue. I agree that it merits a bigger debate. The participation of colleagues across the House signals the strength of feeling.

Let me start by acknowledging the tragedy, pain and trauma suffered by the families of all those who have lost their lives on our roads—especially Jason Mercer, whose family are in the Gallery, and Dev Naran—and particularly, in the context of this debate, on our smart motorways. It is no good Ministers saying that all roads are safe; people need to feel safe and be safe. We need to ensure that safety remains our No. 1 priority. We accept there is a problem here. The Secretary of State is, as we speak, putting the finishing touches on a serious package of measures to tackle it. I cannot and will not pre-empt that, but I will deal with a number of points that were raised.

I would not be doing my job if I did not start by reminding everyone that safety is our No. 1 priority. Highways England’s objective in implementing smart motorways is to ensure that they are as safe as the pre-smart motorway network, which is already the safest bit of the road network, and ultimately safer. We are committed to developing an increasingly safe road network, and I am alarmed that the safety statistics showed a slight increase last year. I take the point my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) made about drilling down into that data, which I will raise with Baroness Vere.

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What the Minister has said is interesting, but given all he has heard, does he accept that smart motorways, or all-lane running—whichever he wants to call it—are as safe as building an extra lane and having a permanent hard shoulder?

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That is one of the precise questions that the Secretary of State is looking at. I do not want to pre-empt that work, but I absolutely accept the hon. Gentleman’s reason for asking that important question.

Highways England is constantly monitoring, and it has introduced a number of measures. This is ongoing work. It is not something we think is done and dusted; it is live as we speak. The truth is that, for anyone involved, one accident is one too many. I want to ensure that no one ever dies in this way again, and that the legacy of the people who have died is that that sort of accident, and the situation in which it occurred, cannot happen again. That is why the Secretary of State announced an evidence stocktake soon after taking office. He has called in all the evidence and data, and he is looking at a package of measures to deal with this issue, which will be announced imminently. It would be sensible if, following the debate, we quickly reconvened the all-party group on road safety. Perhaps we might go further and create a taskforce for all colleagues who are interested in this issue, so we can listen to their concerns and ensure that that work is fed directly in.

I hope my hon. Friends and colleagues on the Opposition Benches understand that I cannot pre-empt the Secretary of State’s announcement, but let me make one or two key points in response to those that were raised. It is true that the principal rationale for smart motorways is to increase capacity, reduce congestion and reduce pollution. There are environmental benefits to ensuring that we maximise the use of existing motorways rather than building new motorway capacity, but there are real issues about awareness, information, the positioning of refuges, rescue, vehicle monitoring, and the safety of vehicles re-entering the highway. All those issues have to be got right, and that is why I am responding in the way I am.

Smart motorways have increased capacity. Since we introduced the scheme, more than 1 billion journeys have been made over the 250-mile network of smart motorways. I do not want people to think this is a very small patch of malfunctioning motorway; it is extensive, and over the last 15 years, millions of people have driven up smart motorways.

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This debate is about all-lane running, not smart motorways. It actually is about a very small stretch. Please, Minister, do not just focus on smart motorways and how wonderful the M25 is. We get that. We are talking about all-lane running, which is where we do not have investment.

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I understand. I am setting the context, because I think there is quite a lot of public misunderstanding about what smart motorways are. I am short of time and I am keen to get to the end of my speech if I can.

The conversion of the hard shoulder to a running lane is a key feature of capacity management, and we avoid having to build more motorways when we can increase the capacity of existing ones. I totally accept that there are real issues, which the hon. Lady raised, not least of which are refuge placement and ensuring that we have full CCTV coverage so we are able properly and quickly to monitor vehicles that are in trouble and ensure that they are dealt with properly. The scheme has been running since 2014. To the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford, there is a lot of data that we ought to be able to draw on, and we are drawing on it in this review.

It is worth reflecting that the hard shoulder on a traditional motorway has never been deemed a safe place to stop. One of the problems is that, traditionally, people have seen the rescue telephones and thought of it as a safe place to stop, find facilities and make a phone call. It is not and never has been. One of the things we have struck is a misunderstanding that it is a good place to pull over. It is not. Let me repeat that the hard lane has never been that and is never that. In contrast, there have been no collisions in refuges resulting in fatalities.

In the original pilot on the M42 in 2006, refuges were set very close together, at approximately 500 metres apart. Based on operational insights, further performance data and ongoing monitoring, Highways England moved that to 1,000 metres on all other dynamic hard shoulder running schemes, and then to 2,500 metres on all-lane running schemes. That is one of the things the Secretary of State is looking at.

Highways England undertook a review of operational all-lane running schemes and found no consistent correlation between the number of live-lane stops and the spacing of emergency areas, but I take the point my hon. Friend made about drilling down into that data, and I will ensure that that is done. We and Highways England know that motorists not only need to be safe but need to feel safe and need to know what to do when they are in the dangerous situation of a breakdown or a collision. We need to ensure that everyone has that information properly.

The specification for the maximum spacing of emergency areas on new schemes has been reduced from 1.5 miles, which is about 90 seconds at 60 mph and equivalent to the spacing of lay-bys on sections of A road, to 1 mile, which is about 60 seconds at 60 mph. However, again, we need to look at the data; on particular sections, given the geography of the road area, the spacing might need to be different. Highways England will also install a number of additional emergency refuge areas in locations with the greatest spacing. We need to look at whether there are particular blackspots where we need more refuges.

All emergency areas are fitted with orange surfacing to make them more visible, and better advance signing will give motorists more information about how far away the next one is. I want to go further and ask whether we could use digital technology, which many drivers use for satellite navigation, to ensure that every driver knows when they are in one of these areas, where the refuge is and what they should do. Technology can help us ensure that we avoid the sort of tragedies we have seen.

Identifying a broken-down vehicle is key, and I know that is something my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford has raised. If a driver is unable to reach a place of safety, the regional traffic control centre can and should use the overhead electronic signals to close lanes, display warning messages and slow down approaching traffic, as well as to create an access lane for the emergency services. To reduce response times in setting those signals, Highways England has installed a stopped vehicle detection system on two sections of the M25 and will shortly install one on part of the M3. Again, however, if that is the prerequisite, we need to put it everywhere and ensure that it works properly. Highways England is designing it into all-lane running smart motorway schemes that are currently scheduled, and it is exploring how to provide the same benefits on all existing all-lane running smart motorways. I say that not to suggest that it is an adequate response to the points that were made, but simply to highlight the work that is going on.

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The Minister will know that when Highways England appeared at the Transport Committee, it confirmed that stopped vehicle detection systems are only 90% effective. What is in place to deal with the other 10%?

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That is an excellent point, and it is one of the issues the Secretary of State will be looking at in his work.

In the remaining seconds, I want to touch on reports that the AA has said it will not let its patrols stop in live lanes. That is concerning, because we need the support of all vehicle rescue operators. It is worth saying they are never expected to work in a live lane on any motorway unless the scene has been made safe by police officers. That has always been the situation. Highways England has developed guidance on safe recovery with the recovery industry, and it has put in place a whole series of measures, such as electronic signs, variable speed limits and red X signals. Regional control centres and on-road traffic officers can now support vehicles leaving an emergency area. Again, I am not suggesting that is adequate; more needs to be done to ensure that this is working properly.

Red X lane enforcement is long standing. It has been in use since the system was introduced in 2006, and Highways England, in partnership with the police, has issued more than 180,000 formal warning letters to drivers identified as having wrongly used the hard shoulder at a number of smart motorway locations. That number must come down. The aim should be to ensure that nobody drives in the wrong lane at the wrong time, rather than to issue letters to warn them. We need faster progress on that. We have brought in legislation to allow automated detection of red X offences using camera equipment and to enable the police to prosecute, but, again, that should be the last line and something we hope never to have to do. We need to ensure that those incidents do not happen. There have been major public information campaigns, which I do not have time to list in detail.

Let me conclude by saying, in the spirit of the debate, that I am keen to work with the Roads Minister, Baroness Vere, to follow up with colleagues on both sides of the House and look at whether we might set up a taskforce to ensure that their insights can be fed in, and to work with the Secretary of State to ensure that the package he announces is adequate for all of us who use the motorways and represent drivers. I want to ensure that the deaths of Jason, Dev and the others were not in vain, and that their legacy is real improvement so everyone knows these routes are safe.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.