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Smart Motorways

Volume 728: debated on Wednesday 22 February 2023

[Relevant documents: Third Report of the Transport Committee of Session 2021-22, Rollout and safety of smart motorways, HC 26, and the Government response, HC 1020; Oral evidence taken before the Transport Committee on 20 July 2022 on Smart motorways: progress update, HC 606.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered smart motorways.

As ever, it is a real pleasure to serve under your guidance, Mr Betts. I know that, as the MP for a neighbouring constituency, you are very aware of this topic, so thank you.

On the morning of 7 June 2019, Jason Mercer said goodbye to his wife, Claire, and left for work. While travelling on the M1 near Rotherham, he was involved in a minor collision. Two years prior to the collision, the hard shoulder on that section of motorway had been converted into a full-time running lane. Local authorities, emergency services and local people had all objected to that, but were ignored. With no emergency refuge nearby, and with the hard shoulder removed, Mr Mercer and his fellow motorist stopped on the inside lane of the motorway to exchange details. Minutes later, both were dead. With a steep bank immediately behind the safety barrier, Mr Mercer was unable to move out of the live lane. Their vehicles were hit by a lorry, and both men were killed instantly. The stationary vehicles were not detected by the then Highways England for more than six minutes. The lane in which they were stranded was closed only after both men had been killed. Mr Mercer’s was one of 79 lives claimed on Britain’s growing smart motorway network in the period up to July 2022.

Since their inception, the alarm has been raised repeatedly about all-lane-running motorways. In 2016, the Select Committee on Transport found that the attendant safety risks of all-lane-running motorways had not been addressed. It recommended:

“The Department should not proceed with a major motorway programme on the basis of cost savings while major safety concerns continue to exist.”

Five years later, in 2021, the Committee again criticised the smart motorway programme, noting that

“the promised safety improvements were delivered neither efficiently nor effectively.”

It argued that safety risks

“should have been addressed before those motorways were rolled out.”

It is hard to escape the conclusion that had they been addressed, Jason Mercer might still be alive. Multiple inquests into deaths on smart motorways have said as much. In recording a verdict of unlawful killing, the inquest into Mr Mercer’s death listed five contributing factors, including the absence of a hard shoulder, the lack of stationary vehicle detection technology, and insufficient driver training on how smart motorways work. The inquest into the death of Sheffield-based Nargis Begum, killed in 2018 on the same stretch of the M1 as Mr Mercer, found that the lack of a hard shoulder contributed to her death. Yet National Highways, inexplicably, continues to claim that smart motorways are safer than conventional motorways. Data that it offers to support that conclusion is misleading, to say the least.

The 2016 Select Committee report noted:

“The ‘smart’ in smart motorways does not come from the loss of the hard shoulder…It could be seen as disingenuous to present this change as part and parcel of ‘smart’ motorways. The Department cannot use a reduction in risk in some hazards to justify an increase in risk in others.”

The implementation of new safety features is of course welcome. The installation of stopped vehicle detection technology in particular is a much-needed safety feature. But it is far from a magic bullet. Although SVD can reduce the time that it takes to identify stopped vehicles, it is far from perfect.

The lack of a hard shoulder is inherently dangerous, particularly without frequent emergency refuges to provide a place of safety. The spacing of emergency refuges is one of the most concerning aspects of design changes made as the all-lane-running programme has developed. The initial pilot project saw refuges spaced at 400-to-800-metre intervals. In later designs, that was expanded to a frankly staggering 2,500 metres between refuge areas. That is more than 1.5 miles.

I commend the hon. Lady, who brings to Westminster Hall and the Chamber many issues that I support, and this is one of them. I look forward to the Minister’s comments. There are conflicting opinions on smart motorways and their safety. Northern Ireland has seen the introduction of smart motorway techniques, which in Northern Ireland are referred to as intelligent traffic systems. We have that on the A12 Westlink. We cannot ignore the fact that many fear smart motorways because of the arguments about no hard shoulder. Does the hon. Lady agree that before smart motorways are implemented, the Government must ensure that there is sufficient signage to make drivers aware of that? They may be driving on roads they have never been on before and not notice the change. More signage is needed before any more people panic or become involved in road traffic incidents.

I agree with every word the hon. Gentleman says.

Just imagine that someone is having a heart attack, their car is breaking down or they have been in an accident, and they then have to drive a mile and a half to get to a safe space of refuge. It is difficult to fathom. The only explanation that I can come up with is that a decision has been made on cost grounds, and that is hard to reconcile with the repeated claims of National Highways that its overriding priority is the safety of motorists.

The 2021 Select Committee report recommended that the roll-out be paused pending the collation and analysis of five years of safety data. The Government’s acceptance of that recommendation was welcome, but misleading. Not only do all-lane-running motorways continue to operate but, as the hon. Gentleman said, new schemes are being built and brought online. By spring of this year, four new sections of all-lane-running motorways will begin operation. While the Government dither, constituencies like mine continue to host death-trap roads. Make no mistake, all-lane-running motorways are death traps.

In 2014, with the road operating as a conventional motorway, an average of 14 vehicles became stranded in live lanes each month between junctions 32 and 35A of the M1. In 2018, the first year of all-lane running for the same stretch of motorway, a staggering 81 vehicles per month were stranded in live lanes. Each of those incidents represents a potential tragedy. Each saw a motorist stationary in high-speed traffic, hoping and praying that other motorists would see them in time—staring in terror at their rear-view mirror as vehicles hurtled towards them. And what is National Highways advice to motorists stranded in live lanes? Hon. Members will not believe this, but it is: “Keep your seatbelts on, turn on your hazard lights and call 999”. No place of refuge is available. Motorists are forced to wait and hope.

We are told that technology mitigates the risks—that stranded vehicles will be spotted quickly, that lanes will be closed and we will be safe—but even with stopped vehicle detection technology, it can still take several minutes to detect a stationary vehicle. Almost 10% of vehicles stopped in live lanes on smart motorways are not detected within a minute. Almost 2% are not detected within five minutes. Still worse, SVD does not even work properly. The Office of Rail and Road has disclosed that SVD has failed to meet key performance requirements on detection rates, speed of detection or even the number of false alerts. That is simply not good enough, and it makes the claim that all-lane-running motorways are safer than conventional motorways difficult to comprehend.

The hon. Lady is illustrating the issue well. I was sitting here and thinking about when someone is stuck on the hard shoulder and vehicles are going by at a speed in excess of 70 miles an hour. Does she agree that the speed factor contributes to how quickly they can stop, and that compounds the panic and fear?

If we have to stop on the hard shoulder, having those cars racing by is terrifying. If there is no hard shoulder and we are stuck in a live lane, we can see them coming, but we have no control other than to hope that our seatbelt works.

The claim that smart motorways—all-lane-running motorways—are safer than conventional ones is ridiculous. It is based largely on offsetting the safety risk that is introduced by removing the hard shoulder against the safety improvements that a managed environment delivers, but those two things are not mutually dependent. As a 2016 Select Committee pointed out, it is perfectly possible to introduce a managed environment while retaining the hard shoulder. National Highways should not continue to offset the safety improvements delivered by technology against the risk of removing the hard shoulder in an ever desperate effort to justify what it does.

Roads with safety features in place that retain the hard shoulder do exist, and they are called controlled motorways. It would seem logical to use them as a realistic point of comparison when determining relative safety, but that is a comparison that National Highways seems hugely reluctant to make. I have repeatedly questioned it about this and have requested a direct comparison between the rates of fatal incidents involving stationary vehicles in live lanes on controlled motorways and on all-lane-running motorways. It was with much kicking and screaming that the data was eventually published in the second year progress report. The comparison is truly shocking. The rate of incidents involving stopped vehicles in which someone was killed or seriously injured on controlled motorways was 0.06 per 100 million vehicle miles travelled. For all-lane-running motorways it was a staggering 0.19 per 100 million vehicle miles travelled.

In the name of increasing capacity on the cheap, National Highways has more than tripled the likelihood of serious incidents involving stationary vehicles. Given those risks, it is hard to overstate just how important the proper functioning of the managed environment is, and yet the technology is far from reliable. For the month of September 2022, the national availability of stopped vehicle detection technology was recorded at 98%, and for warning signs 90%. That might sound reassuring, but for crucial safety equipment, a failure rate of 2% and 10% is shocking. Would we trust a seatbelt that worked 90% of the time? It is not unreasonable to ask that those features work reliably before placing our lives in their hands.

Last month, technology across the network was down for several hours during planned maintenance on National Highways’ DYNAC system. No advance warning was provided to motorists. This was the latest in a series of outages that whistleblowers have reported and that have deeply alarmed National Highways staff. Those whistle- blowers have said that the technology is out today, but I am unable to verify that. It is hardly surprising that the public lack confidence in these roads.

E-petitions calling for smart motorways to be scrapped and hard shoulders restored have received more than 10,000 signatures. Research conducted by the RAC has shown that 85% of motorists believe that safety is compromised by the removal of a hard shoulder. Worse still, just 46% of respondents felt confident that they knew what to do in the event of a breakdown in a live lane. The consequences of that lack of public awareness were shockingly exposed during the inquest into the death of Nargis Begum. The inquest heard that 153 vehicles passed the stranded vehicle, but no one reported it to the authorities. Why? Because they believed the vehicle would be detected by CCTV. That is not unreasonable in the face of National Highways’ repeated claims about the efficiency of its technology, and yet National Highways testified to the inquest that detecting a stopped vehicle using CCTV was not “practicable”.

National Highways belatedly recognised the importance of public education in ensuring that smart motorways can operate safely. The result was a public information campaign in which actors dressed as insects smeared on windscreens sang to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys’ “Go West”. Understandably, this staggeringly misjudged campaign was condemned by those who had lost family members on smart motorways.

During the recent Conservative leadership campaign, it was a relief that both the former Prime Minister—the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss)—and the current Prime Minister expressed concern about these roads. The current Prime Minister branded them “unsafe” and committed to banning all new smart motorways. Campaigners and bereaved families were left bitterly disappointed when, just weeks later, he U-turned, with the Secretary of State for Transport reverting to the familiar refrain of waiting for evidence.

How much evidence do the Government need? How many more people have to die? How many more families will be left to grieve for their loved ones? We cannot continue to gamble with the lives of motorists. Removing the hard shoulder greatly increases the risks for motorists. The technology that is meant to secure their safety is unreliable, incomplete and ineffective. Tinkering around the edges, tweaking designs and rolling out flawed technology will not remove the inherent risk that the Government have chosen to introduce to our motorways. People are dying and yet the Government continue to delay, searching for an answer that is staring them in the face.

Had Jason Mercer been able to pull on to a hard shoulder, he would still be alive and Claire Mercer would still have a husband. The Government can prevent further loss of life, but to do so they need to recognise something that even the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), the former Minister who commissioned these smart motorways, has admitted, namely that they were a mistake. Nothing will bring back Jason Mercer, but the Government can at least put right their mistake and restore the hard shoulder across the motorway network. I plead with the Minister to do so right now, before more lives are needlessly lost.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. Because your constituency neighbours that of the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), I know you also have an interest in this issue. I thank the hon. Member for Rotherham for securing this debate about smart motorways. I will make some general points before I address the ones that she and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made.

The strategic road network—our major motorways and A roads—is the safest part of the country’s road network. Data shows that there are far fewer incidents and casualties per mile on the strategic road network than on the rest of the network. However, that does not detract from the fact that every death on our roads is a tragedy and one death too many.

The M1 is a route that I use regularly to go to and from my constituency of North West Durham. Recently, I visited junction 28 to see the issue with traffic backing on to the motorway, which hon. Members from the region raised recently in Westminster Hall. I have every sympathy for those who have lost loved ones in road accidents and particularly Jason’s widow, Claire, who is here today. I promise to listen as they and others continue to press for greater improvements in road safety.

Hon. Members will be aware that in 2021 the Transport Committee conducted an inquiry into the roll-out and safety of smart motorways. We have agreed to take forward all the Committee’s recommendations. Most significantly, we have paused all new schemes that are yet to start construction until we have built up further safety and economic data. That pause continues and the data continues to be gathered.

I am listening acutely to what the Minister is saying. He must be aware that the pause is not impacting the schemes that have already left the drawing board, so smart motorways continue apace. If the Government are concerned enough to pause the new ones, why are they not pausing all of them?

The hon. Lady is right that several schemes are well under construction. National Highways felt that it would be more detrimental to stop construction, because doing so would perhaps cause more incidents than continuing with construction as planned.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I thank the Minister for giving way. I also thank the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) for securing this debate.

On that point, Baroness Vere, the roads Minister from the Department for Transport, came to the Transport Committee—I am a member of that Committee and was involved in both its reports on smart motorways, in 2016 and 2021—and said that all schemes would be paused. Why has National Highways changed the remit?

My understanding of the commitment made is that any new scheme would be paused. To stop an ongoing scheme would potentially be more detrimental than to finish it.

I want to address the statistic that the hon. Member for Rotherham raised about deaths on smart motorways. The 78 fatalities she mentioned are across all smart motorways—that is all-lane running, dynamic hard shoulder and controlled. Removing the controlled element, that figure is 47; even on controlled motorways, there will be issues. However, the motorway network per mile is far safer than dual carriageway or A road options, or anything that is not a controlled environment. I just wanted to put that on the record as a clarification.

The hon. Lady made important points about breaking down on the motorway and stopped vehicle collisions. Although collisions involving a stopped vehicle are rare, I recognise that they are a major concern for drivers, and that there is a higher number of such collisions on smart motorways without a permanent hard shoulder. We have therefore committed £900 million to bolster safety features across smart motorways, including rolling out additional technology to help to spot stopped vehicles— I have been at the control centres and seen that in action myself—and putting in an additional 150 emergency location stops. In 2020, we changed the design stats on spacing to a maximum of 1 mile, and three quarters of a mile where feasible. In our response to the Transport Committee’s 2021 report, the Government committed in January 2022 to an extra 150 emergency areas by March 2025, on which work has already started.

I will turn to a few of the hon. Lady’s questions. Road users expect high standards for response times on the motorway network. It is worth remembering that the interrelated system of features on smart motorways are not present on conventional motorways, such as stopped vehicle detection radar technology. This new feature has been rolled out across the entire all-lane-running network to improve the detection of stopped vehicles and reduce the duration of live lane stops. As the hon. Lady said, National Highways detects around two thirds of stopped vehicles within 20 seconds, and almost 90% within 60 seconds, allowing it to quickly set signs and signals, such as the red X, to keep drivers safe. That feature is not available on conventional motorways.

National Highways does recognise that stopped vehicle detection can perform better, which is something I have been pushing it on, and it is working hard to deliver further improvements by the end of June this year. Right now, I can report that we have made further strides in attendance: the time it takes a traffic officer to attend has fallen from an average of 17 minutes to under 10 minutes in December 2022. As with any technology, there are occasions when something does not work as expected or improvements need to be made. National Highways is fully aware of that. It is investing £105 million over the next two years to improve CCTV and other technology, not only enhancing the management of the network, but improving drivers’ day-to-day experience with other issues on the motorway network. However, when the availability of technology on smart motorways is reduced, we need to find the root cause and plan ahead.

National Highways has well-rehearsed mitigation measures to deal with operational challenges, including those relating to technology, whether that is increasing the number of traffic officers on the network or reducing speed limits on certain sections and enhanced monitoring of CCTV. We will continue to expedite every effort to ensure that technology on the network is as reliable as possible. I recognise that drivers need to feel confident on smart motorways, and we are using all the evidence we can to act to ensure that those concerns are addressed. We have listened and will continue to listen to concerns. We will make as many mitigations as possible. We are hugely enhancing stopped vehicle technology and the pull-in areas. We are absolutely committed to making our busy motorways as safe as possible for everyone who uses them across the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.