Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the safety of smart motorways and what plans they have to review their policy towards them.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to hold this debate. I start by recording my condolences for those who have lost loved ones or suffered serious injury in an incident on a smart motorway.
When smart motorways were first discussed, I sat on the RAC Foundation Public Policy Committee; I am currently a subscribing member of the RAC club. At that time, I expressed in the strongest possible terms real and grave concerns on safety grounds, as smart motorways clearly pose an immediate danger to the drivers and occupants of cars—particularly where they might break down on a hard shoulder that is being used as a running lane—as well as to other motorway users. While the existing road structure may have been deemed to lead to congestion, that a broken-down vehicle could clog up what was essentially used for emergency purposes as a hard shoulder was surely unconscionable.
The department appears to use a formula based on a points system to assess road safety elements. Points are allocated according to the number of casualties or fatalities caused by an unsafe road either to justify motorway improvements or the construction of a roundabout. If the formula of the points-based allocation is not met, nothing will happen. I know this to be the case with roundabouts from personal experience. Many people before me had campaigned for a roundabout to be built on the northern access to the town of Easingwold in the former constituency of the Vale of York. My predecessors had been very vocal in this regard. On election day 1997, three people were killed at the exact spot of the requested roundabout. As a result of that tragedy, the requisite number of casualties had been reached and points satisfied, and the roundabout was built.
I will leave the Minister, whom I am delighted to see in her place, to describe smart motorways and their purpose. Essentially, they rely on technology to make use of the hard shoulder. Initially, the pilot was cautious, opening up hard shoulders only at peak times, with emergency refuge areas closely spaced. Then in the early 2010s, plans emerged to turn motorway hard shoulders into permanent running lanes—managed motorways known as all-lane running. Later, they became smart motorways and the Highways Agency decided to space the emergency refuge areas further apart.
As I understand it, there are currently three types of smart motorway scheme: all-lane running, dynamic hard shoulder. and controlled motorways. The Highways Agency surely believed at the time that the design would be as safe as existing motorways, but it recognised the increasing risk of a vehicle breaking down in a live traffic lane. Highways England, as it became, estimates that congestion on motorway and major road networks in England costs £2 billion every year, yet it acknowledges that 25% of that congestion results from incidents on those motorways.
The safety record of smart motorways was not good and has deteriorated. Thirty-eight people died on smart motorways in the five years to January this year. On one section of the M25, the number of near-misses since the hard shoulder was removed in April 2014 increased from 72 in 2014 to almost 1,500 in 2019. That is staggering.
Clearly, every fatality represents a human tragedy and wasteful loss of life. I want to refer to just one: the case of a mother who was killed on the M6 elevated area. The driver pulled over, but the hard shoulder was in use as a dynamic lane where there was no emergency refuge area or exit for 2.5 miles. I would say that that death was preventable.
Cars which break down in a live lane leave occupants fearful whether they can safely exit the vehicle or whether they will be spotted if they remain in it. Highways Agency figures show that it takes on average 17 minutes to reach a vehicle in such circumstances.
A welcome pause came on 30 January this year when my right honourable friend the Secretary of State—I do not know whether he is still in position as we speak; the Minister indicates that he is, so I congratulate him—stated that the M20 and other stretches of road will not be opened as planned as smart motorways until the outcome of the government review is known. I hope that my noble friend the Minister will take this opportunity to speak as freely and openly as she can to let us know what the state of that review is.
I want to take a moment to consider the alternatives, of which there are essentially three. First, I know that many such as the AA would scrap smart motorways and hard-shoulder running lanes and revert to using hard shoulders as they were originally intended, allowing police, ambulance, fire and other emergency vehicles to access injured occupants as quickly as possible. The second option is to increase the number of existing emergency refuge areas so that, in the event of a breakdown, there is more chance of a vehicle reaching the emergency refuge area. Thirdly, we could widen existing carriageways or increase the number of lanes from three to four, albeit they may be narrower.
How will such improvements be paid for? While I recognise that hypothecation is not normally permitted, one or two motorways have been seen to benefit recently from hypothecated funding. I urge the Government to consider spending road tax revenues on improving road safety and investing in an alternative infrastructure to smart motorways, thereby making our roads safer.
I want to end with a number of questions for my noble friend the Minister. Does she agree with, and will she have regard to, the words of the national chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, who has said that smart motorways are inherently dangerous, put lives at risk and are death-traps? No one should know better than the police and other emergency personnel how unsafe smart motorways have turned out to be.
Can the Minister put our minds at rest that cost savings have not been chosen over human life and road safety? Will the Government take this opportunity to reverse the priority and either return the hard shoulder to its original use or increase the width and number of lanes?
As asked in Local Transport Today, is it acceptable that a risk should have consciously been designed into smart motorways in order to deliver the benefits of increased road capacity? Surely the benefits of road capacity must be secondary to the fundamental safety of those using the motorways.
Smart motorways may have been considered as safe as traditional motorways, but that has been proved not to be the case. Even when they were initially piloted, it was known that they could have been safer. It is unacceptable that cost appears to have been chosen over road safety, and what a cost it has been. Now is the time to end the speculation, to end this catastrophic experiment and to put safety first.
Cost and saving money must not trump road safety.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for introducing this debate. She spoke with great passion and I agree profoundly with her sentiments.
In the face of rising motorway congestion, the vision of a lower-cost way of expanding our motorways was very tempting, but careful safeguards were built in right at the beginning. Unfortunately, that vision was compromised, as the noble Baroness said, by cost- cutting measures. A key one was a reduction in the frequency of safety lay-bys. Although they were originally envisaged to be every 600 metres, we now hear of one example where they are 2.5 miles apart. We are informed that the frequency of lay-bys was reduced to shave 2% off the cost of a motorway. If we compare that with the cost overrun on HS2, for example, it puts it in perspective.
Safety in the vision of smart motorways depended on four factors: frequent safety lay-bys; the use of radar to enable virtually instant identification of stationary cars in the inside lane, so that the lane could be closed; regular and frequent highway patrols; and widespread public education about how to use these motorways. None of these has happened in the way it should have—and that change of policy occurred not with public debate but by stealth. People, as the noble Baroness pointed out, have died as a result. One of the most worrying statistics about smart motorways is the number of near-misses. Noble Lords who have driven along them will know that they are very scary.
I strongly welcome the Secretary of State’s stocktake. It is absolutely essential and I fully support it. Will it be published and, if so, when? I asked a Written Question on this, but the Answer did not include that information. It is essential that this stocktake is done as soon as possible and that the information is published. It must set new clear standards for smart motorways, and I would urge an annual review of the effectiveness of those standards.
There is recent information that it will be three years before we see radar on the stretches that have already been installed. To my mind, that is far too long; we cannot have three years of unsafe operation. The Government should return these stretches of road to hard shoulders again until radar is installed—I urge the Minister to consider this.
I asked the previous Minister about the M20 in the run-up to Brexit preparations. The reply I got was that it was as safe as other contraflows. Contraflows are temporary arrangements, and it worries me that the Government are perhaps using two different standards for measuring the safety of smart motorways. Can the Minister update us on the situation on the M20 and the permanence of all-lane running there? In the short term, one solution to the problems faced on smart motorways is that the speed limit could be reduced significantly. Are the Government considering that as a solution? It is of course important that those speed limits are properly enforced.
Finally, I raise the issue of electric vehicles. When an electric vehicle ceases to function, it stops; it does not coast in the way that other vehicles do. Smart motorways are supposed to be the future, but the future is electric. Those vehicles stop very suddenly. They also cannot be towed; they have to be put on a low-loader, which is a much more complex and longer process that will put rescue teams in greater danger. So can we have special consideration for how these new motorway layouts will operate when there are lots of electric vehicles on the road?
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, on the way in which she has introduced this subject. I declare an interest as deputy president of RoSPA. When the first smart motorway experiment opened on the M42 in 2006, it showed great potential for improving the situation caused by the growing congestion on Britain’s motorways. Using technology, new techniques were developed to better manage the increasing volumes of traffic. Warning systems eased and even averted traffic jams, alerted motorists to congestion points and proved invaluable in emergency situations.
These improvements led Sir Mike Penning, former government Minister and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Roadside Rescue and Recovery, to approve the 2010 rollout of the smart motorway programme. But the developers of the system allowed their quest for more speed and more capacity to eclipse the need for safety by giving the go-ahead to permanently converting the hard shoulder into running lanes on around 300 miles of motorway. The all-lane-running motorway had arrived.
The consequences of that ill-thought-out decision were vividly illustrated in the BBC’s recent “Panorama” programme, which revealed—as the noble Baroness has said—that 38 people have been killed in the past five years on the UK’s smart motorway network. The all-lane-running policy is the fatal flaw in the smart motorway system. The Minister will hear this theme running through many of the contributions. It has made the job of the emergency rescue services infinitely more difficult. It increases the risk of breaking down in a live lane and, as we have heard, even the police have branded the scheme a death-trap.
All motorists who have ever driven on a motorway fear the possibility of their vehicle suddenly losing power, but reassure themselves that they have a good chance of reaching the safe haven of the hard shoulder. Unfortunately, all four types of smart motorway that have been introduced have, in varying degrees, removed that haven of the hard shoulder for a motorist in distress. In an RAC survey last November, 68% of drivers in England thought removing the hard shoulder put people whose vehicle breaks down at greater risk. These fears are well founded, as a freedom of information request sent by “Panorama” to Highways England revealed that on one section of the M25 the number of near-misses has risen twentyfold since the hard shoulder was removed in April 2014.
While we in the safety industry think the Government’s decision not to open the M20 and other stretches of road as smart motorways is a step in the right direction, 38 avoidable deaths tell us that this is not enough. Regrettably, unless further remedial action is taken, more people will die. We are told by the Government that an imminent review is expected to recommend a major overhaul of the smart motorways scheme. That is welcome. In that exercise I ask the Government to reach out and embrace the expertise and experience of the road safety industry. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents can and will play its part. We should remember that lives are in danger on more than 200 miles of smart motorway in the UK now, so I ask the Minister to urge her colleagues in the Government to take time to bring in the things that will make our motorways safer and more effective, but to lose no time in removing the things that are making our motorways kill.
My Lords, I also thank my noble friend very much for bringing this debate on a pressing current issue. I first thought of speaking in this debate because, like many drivers, I have experienced the congestion that has occurred during the construction of these motorways. That would have been fine if one had ended up with a really good product in the end, but as we have heard from some speeches already, that is the opposite of the case. Also, of course, like other drivers, I have seen exactly how dangerous the abolition of the hard shoulder obviously is: it is simply common sense. However, having looked at it in a little more detail in preparation for speaking, I see that the situation is actually far worse.
As noble Lords have heard, 38 people have died on smart motorways in the past five years and there has apparently been an almost 2,000% increase in the number of near-misses on one section of the M25. Even more worrying, I read that two former Roads Ministers have gone on record as saying that they were misled—a strong word—by the Highways Agency about the safe spacing of refuge lay-bys on smart motorways. They were told that these would appear every 500 metres when there was all-lane running, whereas in fact they have been every mile and a half or so. The Police Federation has also gone on record as saying that it has always opposed the introduction of smart motorways on safety grounds. The Highways Agency has apparently introduced radar technology to detect broken-down vehicles, but on only 25 miles out of a total of 400 miles of the smart motorway network, contrary to its pledge of 100%.
In these circumstances, it is no wonder that the Highways Agency is facing legal claims for corporate manslaughter arising from some of the tragic deaths on smart motorways. I also read that more than 250,000 people have signed a petition to have smart motorways stopped. I know that my family, for one, feels exactly this way. I have to say that in my view, given all these facts and the speeches that have been made this afternoon, I find the word “smart” somewhat offensive. I think it is originally an American word, and I am partly American, so I am familiar with it. There is a word beginning with “d” and ending with “b” that is the opposite of “smart” if you are an American, and I suggest that that word is more appropriate to the situation. In more parliamentary language, it is certainly reckless and perhaps very ill advised.
In closing, I put two questions to the Minister, and I am not necessarily looking for an answer this afternoon. First, how much has the construction of the smart motorway network cost to date, including the economic cost of all the traffic delays and congestion caused by that construction? Secondly, we have heard about the 38 people who have tragically died on the smart motorway network in the past five years. In addition to that, how many people have been injured or seriously injured?
My Lords, like previous speakers I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for introducing this debate. It is apparent that smart motorways have few friends—other than perhaps in the Department for Transport. Those of us who have used them are aware of the dangers and see from time to time the awesome consequences of all four lanes of traffic being in use at exactly the same time.
My noble friend Lord Jordan referred to the BBC “Panorama” programme—I do not know whether the Minister saw it. She might have lots of free time to watch television, given what we are hearing in the media, but we wish her well as far as her future, at least in this House, is concerned. My noble friend referred to the example given in the programme of the number of deaths on smart motorways. The programme also gave lists of near-misses on the M25 on those parts of it that have been converted into smart motorways. I am not quite sure where the BBC got these figures, but it publicised them during the programme and in writing since. Prior to these parts of the M25 being converted into smart motorways, there were 72 near-misses on one particular stretch. Following the conversion there were 1,485 near-misses on the same stretch. So it is apparent to most of us that making running lanes of all four lanes is inherently dangerous.
What can we do instead of spending money on widening our motorways and making many or all of them smart motorways? I will make a couple of constructive suggestions that the Minister might like to look at. We ought to have a driver education programme, inspired perhaps by the department, on keeping to the left on motorways. We are all familiar with the middle-lane hogger. My estimate from driving around is that something like 40% of private motorists never use the left-hand lane anyway and will sit in the middle. They are the same ones who, after millions of pounds have been spent converting three-lane motorways to four-lane ones, leave two empty lanes on their left-hand side, because they then sit in lane three at 50 miles per hour.
The former Secretary of State, Mr Grayling, announced in publicity for which he was famous, if for nothing else, that people would be prosecuted for middle-lane hogging. I have asked a Question since about how many people have been prosecuted. I cannot get the figures because evidently they are not centrally kept, but my view is that, given the general lack of traffic police on our motorways and roads these days, that figure would probably be less than a dozen over the two or three years since the law was changed. So the Minister might consider some aspects of expenditure other than on smart motorways.
It is an accepted fact all over the world—except in the corridors of the Department for Transport—that the more road space you create, the quicker you generate more traffic to fill that space. The noble Lord, Lord Fairfax, said that he was partly American and had spent part of his life in the United States. In southern California, there are 12-lane highways between Los Angeles and San Diego. It takes six hours to travel between those cities on a Friday afternoon because all 12 lanes are full of traffic. It does not make any sense, other than in the corridors of the Department for Transport, to generate more traffic, particularly in the pollution-conscious age we are supposed to be living in. Yet those are the policies that we have followed under successive Governments, and if we try to curb the private car—I am as guilty as anybody else; I drive a car, like most noble Lords—we are told that this is a war on motorists. Well, if it is a war, it is a war that is currently not being won very well.
I am not alone in my aversion to smart motorways; nor are noble Lords in this place. I looked online this morning at an organisation called Change.org which has set up an online petition against smart motorways; this morning, no less than 270,358 people had signed the petition and hundreds more are signing on a daily basis. That shows the department and transport Ministers that there is genuine concern about and an aversion to what is happening on our motorways. Like the previous speaker, I do not think that they are particularly smart at all. A combination of driver education, more traffic police and a more sensible transport policy on the private car is long overdue. I look forward to the Minister telling us that this will happen.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, for this debate and apologise for missing the first few seconds of her very clear introduction. I join the noble Lord, Lord Fairfax, in questioning the terminology of “smart” motorways and intend to refer to them as “all-lane running” motorways instead.
I declare my personal interest in road safety and the reason for it. When I was 23, I was in a car crash in which my mother was killed. I know what it is like to go through this experience. I know what the impact is like on families, emergency services workers and everyone who sees and is around that experience. For that reason I am passionate about Vision Zero, a policy which aims for no fatalities or serious injuries on roads and which was first adopted by the Swedish Parliament in 1997. It has since been adopted by a number of US states, where between 1997 and 2014 they had a 25% faster fall in road fatalities than those that had not adopted it. The Mayor of London has also adopted this policy, with a target date of 2041 for London. Will the Government consider taking this approach? All-lane running motorways are absolutely out of line with that approach. Indeed, they take us in utterly the wrong, opposite direction. It is acknowledged that, to achieve Vision Zero, a key aspect is road design. As many noble Lords have set out before me, the clear evidence is that this road design is disastrous and dangerous.
There is another reason why I wanted to speak in this debate. Near my home city of Sheffield, there is a 16-mile stretch of the M1 where five people have died in the last 10 months. One of those was Jason Mercer, who was killed by an HGV after he had had a minor incident with a driver called Alexandru Murgeanu. They were both killed when they stopped to exchange details by the side of the road on this all-lane running motorway. I pay tribute to his widow Claire, who has been at the absolute forefront of campaigning on this issue and continues to be. But Claire should not be in the position that she is in now, because, as we have heard from previous noble Lords, there are growing calls for the Government to take action to reverse this disastrous policy. We need to end this danger now.
I will very briefly address an issue beyond road safety: the innately flawed approach that is behind this. It is well known that the term “induced demand” is used in traffic engineering: if you build more roads, you create more traffic. Opening up the hard shoulder is equivalent to building more roads. As the noble Lord said about 12-lane highways, they just fill up. There is a way to increase the capacity of our motorways, and that it is to reduce speed limits. With reduced stopping distances, we could actually fit more cars onto the road. However, it probably will not surprise noble Lords that, as a Green Party Peer, I am not looking to increase the amount of traffic on our roads. We focus on road safety in terms of crashes, but road safety has many other aspects as well, such as air pollution. The area of Sheffield to which I was referring—a very poor area—suffers very badly from air pollution. The last thing it needs on its roads is more cars and the accompanying pollution.
Finally, I will pick up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, about education. As noble Lords will be aware, I am certainly a very large user of social media, but the first time that I saw any safety information from the Government about the whole issue of all-lane running motorways was when I opened the House of Lords briefing for today’s debate. I have not seen anything anywhere else. I am perhaps representative of people rather younger than myself, but surely we should ensure that we reach young drivers through social media campaigns and education about what is happening on our roads.
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, on securing this debate. It is a very important subject and we do not seem to be getting very far with our concerns. I share the fear and worry of many other noble Lords: with no hard shoulder, driving is quite a frightening experience because everywhere, not just on the hard shoulders, people are driving too close. They do not seem to see parked vehicles until it is too late and they cannot stop or divert. In the old days—I suppose when I started to drive, 100 years ago or so—you were always told to keep enough distance from the vehicle in front of you so that you could stop if it stopped suddenly. That certainly does not happen nowadays.
What can be done? The noble Baroness mentioned the Swedish experiment, which is very interesting. It has achieved a significant reduction in the number of deaths. But there has been a curve between the deaths when it started, in 2000, and now: there was a significant drop in the first three years, then it levelled off. That is exactly the same as has happened here, according to the latest Road Safety Statement for 2019. That rather indicates that the low-hanging fruit has been picked already and we have to do something more radical.
In this country we have around 1,770 deaths each year on the roads, and 26,000 people are killed and seriously injured. That is a terribly high figure. As noble Lords have said, every one is a serious personal tragedy. What are we going to do about it? We can debate ad nauseam whether motorways are riskier or more threatening than other roads. What would happen if the smart motorways were abolished and speed limits introduced? There would probably be more delays, but is a delay not better than a death or a serious injury? We all think it will not happen to us until it does.
I suppose this is a bit of a refrain of mine: we need to enforce the law. Speeding is one thing—the law is easy to enforce, but that does not happen as often as it should. However, we need a step change. I have suggested for a number of years that when you compare the legislation for other safety activities, including on the railways, which is led by the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, it means that you all have to operate in a manner that is as safe as is reasonably practicable. That means that as the driver, you have the responsibility for acting safely, and if you do not, the enforcement is pretty high and pretty heavy. It applies in many parts of industry, and on the railways, and I cannot see why it cannot apply on the roads as well.
The easiest way would be for the Office of Rail and Road to be given responsibility for road safety. On rail, if you contravene the railway legislation, which is based on the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, you will get into serious trouble. The statistics bear it out. Last year, on the railways there were 17 passenger fatalities on the main line and on the Underground. We can leave suicides to one side, sadly, because that is a difficult subject. However, there were no train accidents involving fatalities, whereas, as I said, there were 1,770 road deaths and 26,000 people killed and seriously injured. I know that if you measure the fatalities per mile travelled, you can come up with all kinds of things. However, the ORR’s approach to road safety puts the responsibility for avoiding accidents and driving safely on the person driving. They are often at work—many usually are—and Ministers should seriously look at that as a way of dramatically reducing road deaths.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to those expressed to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, on securing this timely debate.
The Government have obviously been aware that there is a problem for some time; the Secretary of State announced last autumn that they would be conducting a review, or evidence stock-take, of smart motorway safety as there were concerns that people were dying on them. What precisely were the figures on deaths and injuries on smart motorways that led the Government to institute the review, and when will we know its findings?
The Oakervee review into HS2 was also started last autumn and has already been completed, with some consequential decisions taken by the Government. Why then has this review into smart motorway safety not also been completed by now, bearing in mind that people’s lives could be at stake? Just how independent is a review led by the Department for Transport, which is hardly an impartial bystander on this matter? A review, if it is to be credible, has to look at the role and decisions of the Department for Transport and Highways England.
Last month, as a number of noble Lords have said, a freedom of information request told us that 38 people died on smart motorways in the last five years and that, on one section of the M25, since the hard shoulder was removed in April 2014, near misses had increased from 72 that year to 1,485 in 2019. A letter published recently in the Times read:
“In 2003 I was the police service’s national operational lead for the implementation of the M42 active traffic management scheme. The M42 scheme is 11 miles long and has emergency refuge areas (ERAs) sited approximately 500m to 800m apart, with more than 50 signage gantries. It has virtually total CCTV coverage, with more than 200 cameras monitoring all running lanes. When smart motorways were being planned I and a few others expressed our concerns about safety, particularly the expansion of the gaps between ERAs, but to no avail. Fatalities might have been avoided had the design of smart motorways not strayed from that of the M42 active management scheme. Smart motorways should be urgently reviewed and compared against the M42 scheme still in operation.”
Could the Minister say whether the in-house Department for Transport review is taking the advice of the Times letter writer, and reviewing and comparing smart motorways against the M42 scheme opened in 2006 and still in operation?
Smart motorways are not all the same. On some, the hard shoulder is opened at busy times; on others, it is permanently converted into a traffic lane. Regularly spaced refuge areas are used for emergencies. Smart motorways are intended to relieve congestion by increasing road capacity faster and at less cost than traditional road-widening schemes. New technology is being introduced to mitigate risks to road users, with a stopped- vehicle detection system operational on the M25.
Highways England and the Department for Transport say, in the Road Safety Statement 2019 published in July 2019:
“Early indications suggest that the more recent all lane running smart motorway schemes are also delivering a safety benefit.”
Could the Government say why, if that is the case, just three months later the Government, through the Secretary of State, announced a review into smart motorway safety?
The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Roadside Rescue and Recovery published a report into all-lane running smart motorways. The group concluded that the rollout of these smart motorways should be stopped until safety measures are put in place on all existing stretches of all-lane running motorways, including retrofitting smart motorways with stopped-vehicle detection systems. The RAC says that two-thirds of drivers tell it that the permanent removal of the hard shoulder compromises safety in the event of a breakdown.
An earlier report, from the Commons Transport Select Committee in 2016, stated that it was unable to support all-lanes running due to fundamental safety concerns. The Committee said:
“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.”
On 22 January, the Minister of State at the Department for Transport said, in a Commons debate:
“The Secretary of State is, as we speak, putting the finishing touches on a serious package of measures”,—[Official Report, Commons, 22/1/20; col. 111WH.]
and that the package of safety measures would be “announced imminently”—obviously not that imminently, since it is now three weeks later and, as far as I know, we have heard nothing more. I hope the Government, in their response today, will be able to tell us more about the current position on addressing the safety of smart motorways than the Minister of State, who accepted there was a problem, did just over three weeks ago.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady McIntosh has provided an opportunity to debate a very topical subject and for that I thank her and all noble Lords who have contributed. I take this opportunity to share my deepest condolences with the families of those who have tragically lost their lives, and of course with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, who has shared her story with us today. I have had the honour of meeting Meera Naran, the mother of Dev, who died last year. To honour his death and those of many others, we must redouble our efforts to make all our roads as safe as they can be.
Being in a vehicle is risky and dangerous. Although we have some of the safest roads in the world, nearly as safe as those in Sweden, around 1,500 people die every year. Motorways are the safest type of road. The fatality rate on an A road, for example, is four times higher than that on a motorway. But any death on our roads is one too many and where changes can be made, they should be. Furthermore, I recognise, as do many people in my department, that some drivers feel less safe on a smart motorway than on a conventional one, and we understand that. That is why the Secretary of State asked the department to carry out an evidence stock-take to gather the facts about the safety of smart motorways and to speak to a wide range of families and stakeholders to understand what could be done to make people feel safer. The stock-take will be published shortly.
Smart motorways increase capacity by around a third and help tackle congestion on some of our most busy roads. They help people get from A to B as well as keep our freight moving. They enable us to increase capacity while minimising the amount of additional land required. This has environmental benefits and it means that capacity can be added more quickly. But safety must be a priority. Highways England’s objective is to ensure that a stretch of road that is converted to a smart motorway is at least as safe as it was previously, and that is what the evidence stock-take is looking at.
It is worth reflecting on the conversion of a hard shoulder to a running lane—a key feature that increases capacity on smart motorways—and then looking at the provision and spacing of the emergency areas that essentially replace the hard shoulder and which can cause concern. It is worth noting up front that the hard shoulder on a traditional motorway is not a safe place to stop. One in 12 fatalities on a motorway happens on the hard shoulder. In contrast, there have been no fatal collisions in emergency areas on smart motorways. Furthermore, research shows that approximately 90% of stops on the hard shoulder of conventional motorways are unnecessary; they are simply not emergencies, and they involve putting not only the drivers themselves at risk but their passengers. We will come back to this again and again: public information and public awareness are key to road safety, and that is just one example of where it really would make a big difference.
In today’s schemes, the emergency areas on smart motorways are spaced at a maximum of 2,500 metres, which is about every mile and a half, so at 60 mph, a driver can get to one in under 90 seconds. A number of noble Lords have mentioned the closeness of the spacing of the ERAs on the M42. I will write in more detail about that because it is very important to understand that the M42 did not have the same system as we have now. It was a proof of concept and it is not the same system, so it is not comparable. However, as I say, I will write to explain.
Highways England undertook a review and found that there was no consistent correlation between the number of live-lane stops and the spacing of emergency areas, while the improved reliability of modern vehicles means it is rare that drivers are unable to reach an emergency area if they need to stop. Although there is no consistent correlation between the number of live-lane stops and the spacing of emergency areas, it is important that users feel as safe as they should. Highways England is therefore making a number of changes to the design of emergency areas, so where my noble friend is concerned that cost is given priority over safety, it is a fact that safety—or more specifically, the perception of safety—is in this circumstance being prioritised over cost. The specification for the maximum spacing of emergency areas on new schemes has been cut by a third from 1.5 miles to 1 mile, so a driver travelling at 60 mph would get to one within 60 seconds. This will help drivers feel more confident that they can find a safe place to stop in an emergency. All emergency areas will be fitted with orange surfacing to make them more visible and better advance signing to give information on exactly how far it is until you reach the next one.
One concern noted by many noble Lords is the risk of a live-lane breakdown. I hear and understand concerns about these breakdowns. Some of the images and telephone calls from smart motorways highlighted in the media were utterly heart-breaking. But it is also worth recognising that live-lane breakdowns can and do happen on any road. They happen on smart motorways, yes, but also on conventional motorways, dual carriageways—which often do not have a hard shoulder—and blind corners in country lanes. They happen, so what do we do about them? We must do what we can to minimise their risks in the circumstances in which they occur. On smart motorways we have technology that can help reduce that risk. In all those other circumstances, we do not.
A regional traffic control centre is usually made aware of a vehicle stopped on a smart motorway either by an alert from a traffic flow system—they monitor the cars as they pass under the gantries—then verified by CCTV, which there is along the entire stretch of smart motorways, or by the driver themselves or a member of the public calling the police, who then immediately notify the system. On a smart motorway the red X is then activated to shut the lane, alerting drivers to the incident, and speed limits are put up to slow the approaching traffic. The system can also be used to create an emergency access lane, if needed.
This goes back to education again, does it not? Observing the red X is a key part of motorway safety. In partnership with the police, Highways England has issued more than 180,000 warning letters to drivers who incorrectly drove along a lane with a red X in a number of smart motorway locations. These letters are having a positive effect, but we need to get the red X up as quickly as possible. We need to reduce response times in setting the red X and the other traffic management systems that work with it.
Highways England has installed stopped-vehicle detection on two sections of the M25 and will shortly install it on part of the M3. I point out to noble Lords that stopped-vehicle detection is very useful but is not a silver bullet. As noble Lords will know, radar was built to detect moving vehicles—things that move either through the sky or along the ground. If something is stopped, radar is not necessarily 100% accurate. It can help, but more technology is coming down the track. Highways England is looking at image-based technology, which may also be able to help.
What does one do if a vehicle is stopped on a live lane? What happens next? I noted reports in the media that the AA will not let its patrols stop in live lanes to help stranded motorists. That is very good, because they are absolutely not expected to. Highways England worked closely with the entire recovery industry to develop guidance on safe recovery from smart motorways. Vehicle recovery operators are never expected to work in a live lane on a motorway—not just a smart motorway—unless the scene has already been made safe by traffic officers or the police. Throughout the design and development of smart motorways, there has been extensive consultation with the emergency services to ensure that they have safe and effective operating procedures. This includes getting a vehicle off the road and to a place of safety.
I note the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, about electric vehicles. When I first heard this, I was absolutely astonished. Quite frankly, this is applicable not just to smart motorways but to every single road. We will need to be able to move electric vehicles, wherever they happen to stop or end their days. I assure her that I will now look into it with great gusto, provided I keep my job. Work is under way to look at short-term measures to make sure we can get electric vehicles off to places of safety as quickly as possible, on whichever road, because that certainly would be a large drawback to the introduction of electric vehicles.
Highways England signed a national agreement with the police, fire and ambulance services setting out the principles of operating smart motorways and responding to incidents, along with other regional operating agreements to cover the individual schemes within their areas. Even in heavy congestion, some traffic is usually able to pass the scene of an incident, creating enough space for drivers to pull over and allowing the emergency services to pass. If that does not work and there is a significant blockage, the police can access the incident from the other side.
A number of noble Lords mentioned near-misses. These figures have been bandied around. I wonder whether any noble Lords have looked into what these near-misses mean, what they are or where those figures came from. They are raw data and are probably correct, but there has been such an upturn since 2015 because there has been a massive increase in proactively reporting things that are called near-misses but might be very minor issues along the side of the road. None of the 1,485 incidents recorded on the M25 in the report resulted in any injuries at all.
I do not have long, so I will touch briefly on awareness. This all comes back to awareness. There is so much we must be doing to help our drivers drive safely—not just on smart motorways. I want our drivers to be driving more safely on every single road in our country. Anecdote and gut feel cannot be the main drivers of the critical decisions we face when it comes to road safety. We need to analyse the evidence.
As I mentioned, the evidence stock-take will serve as a significant measure to inform the public on how the Government will proceed with smart motorways. Safety on our roads is critical. We have an excellent record on road safety and our motorways are the safest roads, but still people die—around 1,500 a year. For as long as I am Roads Minister, that keeps me up at night.