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Smart Motorways

Volume 802: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what further discussions they will have with motorist organisations and others concerning the implementation of their recently announced plan for smart motorways.

My Lords, last week the Government published an 18-point action plan to improve safety on our smart motorways. Whether it is increasing public awareness and understanding of smart motorways, helping to improve training and procedures for recovery workers or getting places to stop in an emergency shown on satnavs, to give just three examples, I can assure the noble Baroness that we will continue to have discussions with motorist organisations and others to deliver the plan.

My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. I think the changes announced by the Government last week have been welcomed, but there are certainly fears that they still do not go far enough and that, in particular, the distances between refuge areas will still be too great. Given that surveys have shown that only one in 10 members of the public feel safe on all-lane running motorways, will the Government keep this under urgent, constant review and, if necessary, be prepared to abandon their use altogether?

The noble Baroness makes a number of interesting points. There are two things to consider here: actual safety and the perception of safety. On emergency refuge areas, we are doing all sorts of things to ensure that they are more visible. On new motorways, the standard will be that they are three-quarters of a mile apart. We are making sure that, where possible, they meet the 15-foot width standard. As for the perception of safety, the important thing is that drivers understand what a smart motorway is, how it can benefit them, how they should use it and, if they get into trouble, exactly what they need to do.

My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister take my thanks back to the Government following the debate to which she kindly responded recently? Will she accept that the smart technology is not up to speed for the smart motorways, and will the Government delay the continuation until the smart technology is in place?

I thank my noble friend for her warm words about the report and put on record my thanks to everybody in the department who worked on it. It was an enormous undertaking, involving a huge amount of data that had to be analysed. I am perhaps not entirely sure to what the noble Baroness is referring as all sorts of technology already exists on these motorways, be that the red “X” signs to prevent people travelling in certain lanes, the enforcement of those signs, or the MIDAS speed monitoring systems. All sorts of things are in place. She may have been referring to stopped vehicle detection, which we are rolling out more quickly than we originally anticipated; that will be in place within three years.

My Lords, the smart technology not in place in most cases is that needed to detect vehicles stopped in the inside lane. The outcome of the review gives Highways England up to 36 months to roll this technology out. Does the Minister agree that 36 months is a long time for vital technology that is core in relation to the safety of these motorways? Does she agree that they should be converted back to their original layout, with hard shoulders, until technology has been fully installed in each individual case?

I am afraid I cannot agree with the noble Baroness. She is referring to stopped vehicle detection, which is just one type of technology and the safety case is not dependent on it. There are two other technologies that can also make sure that stopped vehicles are seen. They are MIDAS, as she well knows, and the CCTV that covers all elements of the smart motorway system. I would like the noble Baroness to consider one thing: does she accept that, if we were suddenly to turn around and put back the hard shoulder on all these motorways, by putting roadworks on those roads, we would immediately make those roads less safe?

My Lords, can the Minister give the House the accident rate on smart motorways as opposed to conventional motorways?

My Lords, that was the absolute crux of the 79-page report that we have prepared. We looked at it in two different ways. We looked at the average numbers and then delved down into the detail on whether a motorway, when it becomes a smart motorway, is more or less safe. I therefore encourage the noble Lord to read the 79-page report, if he has time over the coming weeks. From that, he will see that, in most ways, smart motorways are safer. In a smaller number of ways, on specific things, they may not be, but that again is within the margin of error. We are acting on these 18 points because it is absolutely important that people should feel safe as well as being safe.

My Lords, speaking as a simple sailor, it seems amazing to me that we call this smart. We have a road on which cars go along at about 70 miles per hour. If your car goes wrong, you stop in that road where cars are doing 70 miles per hour. I cannot see how that is smart when quite often there is no large gap where you can pull over. I would certainly not feel very happy if my car broke down—luckily it does not do that very often—having to stop on the inside lane of a motorway where traffic is belting along at 70 miles per hour. It does not seem very smart.

The noble Lord will be well aware that if you are barrelling along at 70 miles per hour on the A31 Hog’s Back and you stop, there is no technology at all and there is no hard shoulder. We have roads all across our country that do not have a hard shoulder.

But you travel on them. You can do very high speeds and there is no technology to detect a car that has stopped. I shall go back to say something about something that is quite in vogue at the moment, which is evidence. That is what we did. We went back and looked at the evidence. I accept that the risk on a smart motorway may be different, but if you stop on the hard shoulder of a conventional motorway, that, too, is not safe. One in 12 fatalities happen on the hard shoulder of a conventional motorway. I encourage all noble Lords to go back to the evidence and have a look at exactly what it says. These motorways are in most ways as safe as, or safer than, conventional motorways.