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Transport Committee

Volume 706: debated on Thursday 13 January 2022

Select Committee statement

[Relevant Documents: Third Report of the Transport Committee, Rollout and safety of smart motorways, HC 26, and the Government Response, HC 1020.]

I will remind Members of the procedure for Select Committee statements, because it is still fairly new. The Chair of the Transport Committee, Huw Merriman, will speak for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of the statement, I will call Members to put questions on the subject of the statement and call Mr Merriman to respond to those in turn. Members can expect to be called only once. Interventions should be questions and should be brief. Front Benchers may take part in the questioning.

I am very pleased to be able to make this statement, and not just to commend a set of recommendations from the Transport Committee to the House, but to welcome the acceptance of every one of them by the Government. In so doing, I would like to thank my predecessors as Chair of the Committee. Back in 2016, when I was a member of the Committee, the then Chair, Dame Louise Ellman, made a series of recommendations that were not accepted by the Government. Those calls were correct back in 2016, and if they had been accepted, I contend, we would have been in a better place. In 2019 my predecessor as Chair, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), continued to shine a light on some of the failings of smart motorways. These recommendations are therefore the result of the endeavours of three successive Transport Committees. I would like to thank not only the Chairs, but the members and staff of the Committee, for their tireless work and commitment over the past six years—I see that my Committee Clerk is at the Table, keeping a watchful eye.

By way of explanation, all smart motorways have design and technology that helps to control the flow and behaviour of traffic, but there are three types that differ in how they treat the hard shoulder. First, all lane running motorways do not have a hard shoulder at all but rely on a series of emergency refuge areas for stranded motorists. In 2019 there were 141 miles of all lane running motorway, with a fatality rate, measured from 2015 to 2019 per 100 million vehicle miles, of 0.12%. Secondly, controlled motorways have a permanent hard shoulder. In 2019 they accounted for 141 miles, with a fatality rate of 0.07%. Thirdly, there are dynamic hard shoulder motorways, where the hard shoulder is switched to a lane at busy times of day. In 2019 there were 63 miles of this design, with a fatality rate of 0.09%. The remaining 1,500 miles or so of conventional motorway has a hard shoulder but no smart design. It has a fatality rate of 0.16%.

The data between 2015 and 2019 therefore suggests that smart motorways have lower fatality rates than conventional motorways. However, taking 2019 on its own, when more smart motorways had been rolled out, shows that the reverse is true. Of the three smart motorway designs, all lane running had the highest fatality rate.

The Committee launched its inquiry in February last year and reported in November. The Government shared their response with the Committee this week. In the response, the Government agreed to the following key recommendations. First, to pause the roll-out of all-lane running motorways yet to commence construction until five years of data is available for those built before 2020. Secondly, to pause the conversion of dynamic hard shoulder motorways to all-lane running motorways and revisit the case for controlled motorways.

Thirdly, to retrofit emergency refuge areas to existing all-lane running motorways to make them no further than 1 mile apart—the Government have announced £390 million of funding for this. Fourthly, to grant powers to the Office of Rail and Road, the roads regulator, to evaluate the Government smart motorways project plan. Starting this year, the regulator will report on progress annually and carry out an evaluation of stopped vehicle detection technology and other safety measures.

Fifthly, to introduce an emergency corridor manoeuvre into the highway code to help emergency services and traffic patrol officers to assess incidents, subject to consultation. Sixthly, to investigate the granting of new road safety powers to the roads regulator before changes to design or operational standards are implemented on our motorways and key roads. Finally, to revisit the entire business case and rationale for smart motorway conversion.

The headline is, of course, the pausing of new smart motorways, but during this time, the Government and National Highways will not just be evaluating whether smart motorways are safe enough to meet our high standards, but, for the 141 miles that are all lane running, be retrofitting emergency refuge areas, stopped vehicle detection technology, and CCTV technology to make these smart motorways safer than they are at present.

It is on this retrofitting exercise that I wish to reflect, and I suggest that the lesson must be learned. In the six years that I have been following this project, I have been struck by the focus on creating capacity in the motorway network. That is understandable. Traffic on the strategic road network is projected to increase by up to two thirds over the next 30 years. Ministers and National Highways have argued that a failure to deliver extra capacity, such as can be done via removing the hard shoulder, would cause congestion that could ultimately cause drivers to switch from motorways on to less safe local roads.

However, there is another set of targets and statistics that needs more focus. National Highways has a target of zero harm, by which it aims to reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured on the strategic road network to a level approaching zero by 2040. As part of that commitment, there is a target to reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured on the road network by 50% in 2025, compared with the baseline figure of 2005 to 2009. I see conflicts in this target, just as I saw flaws in the roll-out of smart motorways. Let me give a couple of examples.

First, back in 2016, the Committee was assured that stopped vehicle detection technology would be fitted going forward. By 2019, only 18% of all lanes running motorways had this incorporated. Secondly, we recommended that smart motorways should adopt the specification used in the M42 pilot, with emergency refuge areas every 500 metres. However, these are now typically spaced every 2.5 km on all lane running motorways. It therefore comes as no surprise that 40% of all breakdowns on those motorways occur on a live lane, because at 2.5 km intervals, it takes 75 seconds to reach an emergency refuge area driving at 60 miles an hour, versus the 30 seconds it would have taken had our spacing recommendation been followed. It also follows that, on average, it takes 17 minutes to reach a motorist stranded on a live lane. It comes as little surprise, therefore, that 79% of drivers interviewed by the RAC are concerned that they would not reach such a refuge area.

The upshot is that, instead of drivers using less congested smart motorways and coming off more dangerous local roads, we are faced with the opposite—drivers not feeling safe using smart motorways and moving on to those less safe local roads. This could have been avoided had equal emphasis been placed on safety technology. Instead, the roads were reopened before such measures had been completed. When the Committee put this to the chief executive of the agency in 2019, he maintained that drivers wanted to try the road once the tarmac had been delivered. This culture of capacity first and safety mitigation later needs to be eradicated. I believe that it will be, and I welcome the response of the current chief executive of the agency to our report. He could have been very defensive. Instead, he assured the Committee in his response that he would take on board the recommendations.

I recognise that, for some, this report and its recommendations do not go far enough. Some would like to see the hard shoulder brought back immediately. To those I have this to say. First, hard shoulders also kill. This is why it can be argued that all lane running motorways have a lower fatality rate than conventional motorways with a hard shoulder. Secondly, the new lane of a smart motorway cannot be just turned back to the hard shoulder without substantial engineering works. This would take years. Thirdly, closing the motorway could cause chaos on local roads where the fatality rate is that much greater. However, with the commitment to revisit the business case and the safety performance over the coming years, this may be an action that is required in the years to come.

I can assure the House that the Transport Committee will continue to monitor the delivery of these recommendations. One of the less reported measures is the granting of powers to the Office of Rail and Road to give more independence. Currently, the regulator does not have the powers over road safety in the same way that it does over rail. Indeed, of the regulator’s 350 employees, only 19 focus on roads; the rest focus on rail. This balance will need to change, but I agree with the Government that we need to get the inclusion of regulation right. With every new road, there will be a danger. We cannot use this as a reason to halt road building.

I am delighted that the Government have accepted the Transport Committee’s recommendations. It demonstrates that Select Committees can not only scrutinise, but see reason and reasonable recommendations turned into policy. I thank the Secretary of State for Transport, the Roads Minister Baroness Vere, and the Minister who is here today—the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison)—for doing so. Thank you for allowing me to make this statement, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am happy to take questions from Members.

The Labour party has long warned about the serious flaws with smart motorways, but it is thanks to the dedication of bereaved families and the hon. Gentleman, the Chair of the Transport Committee, and his Committee that the roll-out has been paused at all. Does he share my assessment that alongside the botched roll-out, the failure to install critical technology, which can, for instance, identify stopped vehicles on smart motorways, is absolutely scandalous? Does he believe that lives have been lost as a result?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his points and for being very kind about the work of the Committee. It has been a frustration for the Committee that, on matters such as stopped vehicle detection technology, assurances were given to the Committee in 2016 that those would be delivered but that did not occur. In my view, that is one of the greater failures. It also points to a defensive attitude and a culture of building first and implementing safety second. As he will know, it is very hard to implement that technology once a road is open.

I congratulate the Committee on its work and thank the Government for having listened to the recommendations so positively. Will my hon. Friend put a little more flesh on the statistics? Can he give us some actual figures—if not now, then subsequently—on what point-nought-nought-something per cent. means in actual lives lost? Do those statistics show any significant differences between hours during daylight and after dark?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his words. Like him, I think that the Government deserve a huge amount of credit for accepting all the recommendations. He will know from chairing a Select Committee that it can sometimes be disappointing to receive the responses, but this one was fantastic. He makes the correct point that this is all about the statistics. There is a perception that smart motorways are not safe, and we have to get that right, otherwise people will not use them. If we use the data from 2015 to 2019, we see that there is indeed a better fatality rate, at least. The serious collision rate is perhaps a little more patchy. If we then take 2019, we see that the reverse is true. For that reason, we called for a pause until we can get to the bottom of that.

My right hon. Friend asked about the statistical measure—for example, I referred to the 0.12% figure on all lane running motorways. It is measured per 100 million vehicle miles. It is important to recognise that this is on a proportionate basis. It does not compare a small amount of the network with a much larger one in terms of fatalities. I do not have the data on day and night, but I will write to him with that.

I commend the Chair, members and staff of the Transport Committee and, unusually from my lips, I also welcome the Government’s response in accepting its recommendations.

My question is about the promises that were made to install stopped vehicle detection technology on the existing stretches of smart motorways. I ask because, in 2019, only 18% of all lane running motorways had had stopped vehicle detection technology advanced cameras installed. The Transport Committee has now been told that this roll-out will not be complete until September 2022—that is six years behind schedule. What confidence can the Committee, the House and the general public have in the ability of National Highways—which many of us know as Highways England, as it was previously—to realistically deliver on this and other road safety improvements in future?

The hon. Gentleman—my friend—is right to praise the role of members of the Committee. He is a great one of us, and I thank him for everything he has done in this regard. He is also right to point out the target delivery date. That was one frustration that the Committee experienced. There had been a commitment to roll out the stopped vehicle detection technology for the whole of the existing network by 2023, but the date was then brought forward by a year, to 2022. That was regarded as a positive—which it is—but, as the hon. Gentleman will know, we had received a commitment that from 2016 onwards all new smart motorways would have that technology, so we regarded the date as not one year early, but six years late.

The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on that issue, because we understand—we will look into this further, as will the Office of Rail and Road—that once the road has been built, installing the technology when the lanes are running will be much more difficult, time-consuming and expensive than it would have been had it been done in the first place. I am also intrigued by the question of whether there is enough technology in place to be delivered, from a supply perspective. I think that the hon. Gentleman and I will work in the Committee to investigate that further.

I congratulate my hon. Friend and his Committee on a superb report, and on persuading the Government to change their mind. The Committee is an exemplar of how a really effective Select Committee can persuade a Government to change their policy.

It seems to me that retrofitting emergency refuge areas is the most important way of addressing the safety of all lane running motorways. I welcome the Government’s commitment to spending £390 million on an extra 150 emergency areas—at just over £2.5 million a go—by 2025, but they have made no commitment to retrofitting the remainder, and are saying that that must be considered as part of road investment strategy 3. Is my hon. Friend as worried as I am that the Government might try to wriggle out of retrofitting the remainder after 2025?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. I agree with his first point, but I have learnt lessons from this as well. I have learnt, for instance, that the way to engage with Government is not only to scrutinise—which the Government would expect of those of us on the Back Benches—but to make the case with reason, and to work alongside them. I commend the Government in that regard, because previous Governments have perhaps been less willing to engage, and I believe there are Ministers in the Department for Transport who might have shared the concerns that my hon. Friend and I have had.

As for the point about emergency refuge areas, I share that concern, too. I believe that the spacing should be identical on every single stretch. If the £390 million does not cover that, more funding will be needed. What is key with smart motorways is a uniform set of rules that people understand so that they know they will able to reach an emergency bay. We will be keeping a careful eye on this to ensure that it is delivered, as it would have been already if the pilot had been followed. That is the frustrating aspect of the project: it has just slipped. Corners have been cut, and things have not been delivered. We will focus on that, and ensure that we hold the Government and, indeed, National Highways to account.

I thank the hon. Gentleman and his Committee for the report. I, too, want to focus on refuges. It is great that the Government have adopted certain changes, but the proposal to reduce the spacing to 500 metres—which I believe was the original concept behind smart motorways—has apparently not been accepted. I assume that the Committee heard evidence from the RAC and the AA; I should like to know whether they recommended 500 metres, a mile or some other measure, and what the cost would be if the spacing were set at 500 metres throughout the network.

I thank the hon. Member. He has completely roasted me. My memory is that we did indeed take evidence to find out what the different bodies felt the best spacing would be, which is how we arrived at the “three quarters of a mile to a mile” recommendation. The Government have said that the three quarters of a mile should be introduced where it is possible, but one mile is probably their standard approach. As for the cost of returning to the original M62 pilot spacing, we will look into that and write to the hon. Member. This is something that we will have to do pursuant to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) about the costing of the Government’s £390 million commitment, but I will do the same calculation for the hon. Gentleman’s 500 metres.

I had a very sad constituency case in which a hard shoulder had been opened up because of congestion and a car broke down on it. Some of the people were able to leave the vehicle and go over the barrier, but there was a disabled person in the car. By the time someone in the control room had put the red x on, a heavy vehicle had ploughed into the car, killing that person. Does my hon. Friend know whether that situation has changed? Are there still motorways that rely on someone in a control room switching a button to put the x on, or do we have automatic detection on all motorways now?

My heart goes out not just to the family to whom my hon. Friend referred, but to all who lose their lives on the roads. In any event, where there is a hard shoulder, it is where one in 12 motorway deaths occur. To those who point out that we need a hard shoulder, I say that they are also dangerous.

My hon. Friend asked whether the technology is in place for automatic detection. No. That is what we need to see delivered by the end of this year, if that is to be. We also have to make sure that the CCTV operates. The Daily Mail highlighted that. It had somebody go under cover and work in the CCTV control rooms, and it was clear from the evidence that it was not being monitored.

By putting all that together in one package—the emergency refuge areas to ensure that people can get in faster; the stopped-vehicle detection technology, which means that the lane is closed within a minute; and the CCTV operation and proper staffing—we will make motorways even safer.

Further to the comment from the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), I have also had the opportunity to listen to a very distressing emergency call from a father panicking about where to pull over the car safely after breaking down on the motorway. I could hear the impact of another car hitting the car he was in with his children. I thank the Chair and the Select Committee for all that they have done, but I have grave concerns about the safety implications. Does the Committee believe that the emergency refuge area will address such dangers? As the roll-out has been paused for five years, has the Committee looked at what can be done in the interim period—in that five-year pause—to improve safety?

Again, I add my condolences to those whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The emergency refuge area, as I said, it is absolutely crucial. Statistically, if a car is travelling at 60 mph when it breaks down and the driver needs to get off, it will take 75 seconds under the 2.5 km spacing. If we were to bring that down to the 1 km mentioned, we would see it reduced to about 30 seconds. That could save lives, so I really believe that the emergency refuge area is absolutely crucial and integral.

The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on the pause and what it could mean for delivering the technology. Rather than just resting on our hands and looking at data, which is absolutely required, and then making a decision on whether to start building again, I hope that all the effort that was going to be put into building new smart motorways will now be put into retrofitting these safety measures. I assure him that, as a Committee, we will continue to monitor that.

I congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee on how he has answered questions. He has made the point that even motorways with hard shoulders are dangerous. In my time, a third of the deaths on motorways were secondary deaths. If a running motorway stops running, the traffic jam goes backwards at 30 mph. People need to be aware of that, and they also need to be aware that if traffic is kept off motorways and put on other roads, the dangers are significantly greater than the difference between the different styles of motorways, with or without recessed emergency refuge areas. Will my hon. Friend emphasise to the Government that, as well as the pause, making sure that motorways attract as much traffic as possible should be a key Government priority?

I thank the Father of the House. He is right to focus on that. It is sometimes a very difficult discussion to have because we are talking about the economic case, but as he rightly says, motorways are the safest part of our road network, and getting more traffic on to the motorways saves lives. There is an economic case. It has been estimated that for every pound spent, £3 is delivered by having additional space on motorways. It is also true to say that might be just for the first year, as when people know there is a better route to travel, more people travel on it, but my hon. Friend is right that the more people who can get on to motorways, the better. That, ultimately and fundamentally, is why the Government’s response is spot on. They recognise that there are concerns with smart motorways and that people may not use them and go on to more dangerous roads. We need to send the message out that smart motorways are safe. They can be safer, but people should continue to use our motorway network, because it is the safest network of all of our roads system.