All lane running gets red X from MPs


MPs have called on ministers to pause the rollout of all-lane running (ALR) ‘smart motorways’ until the safety and economic case for the schemes is clear and National Highways has delivered and evaluated key safety improvements.

In a new report, the Transport Select Committee (TSC) also criticised National Highways for failing to keep earlier promises to install stopped vehicle detection (SVD) technology and has called for an independent evaluation of the effectiveness and operation of SVD. This call follows an investigation by Transport Network's sister publication, Highways.

The committee said the rollout of ALR schemes should be paused until five years of safety and economic data is available and safety improvements have been delivered and independently evaluated.

MPs described as ‘woeful’ the efforts to communicate ‘this radical change to motorway design’, where the hard shoulder is permanently converted to a running lane.

They said that both the Department for Transport (DfT) and Highways England (as it was known) failed to deliver on promises to implement safety improvements for ALR schemes, adding that safety risks should have been addressed before ALR schemes were rolled out and that the available data on safety of ALR is ‘limited and volatile’.

The committee said steps introduced by ministers in last year’s stocktake ‘do not fully address the risks associated with the removal of the hard shoulder’.

In fact, it described as ‘premature’ the decision to convert all dynamic hard shoulder schemes – where the hard shoulder is temporarily switched to running lanes - to ALR.

MPs pointed out that that controlled motorways, which have a permanent hard shoulder alongside traffic management technology, have the lowest casualty rates of all motorway types and called on the DfT to set out the business case for controlled motorways compared with all lane running motorways.

Committee chair Huw Merriman MP said: ‘Looking at the available evidence, smart motorways do appear to be safer than conventional motorways even once the hard-shoulder is removed. However, this evidence is also open to question. Only 29 miles of these all-lane running smart motorways have operated for over five years.

‘It therefore feels too soon, and uncertain, to use this as an evidence base to remove the hard shoulder from swathes of our motorway network. The same evidence shows that other forms of smart motorways, where the hard shoulder is converted to a live lane at peak times of congestion, have lower casualty rates than removing the hard shoulder altogether. Despite this, the Government intends to replace these with all-lane running schemes.’

The report states: ‘Drivers and passengers who stop or breakdown in a live lane are put at risk for too long, because the technology used to respond to these incidents is not as effective and reliable as it should be.’ This appears to refer to all types of technology, including the CCTV, the MIDAS system and SVD.

It also notes that Highways England failed to deliver on a promise given at a 2016 committee TSC inquiry into smart motorways to rollout SVD technology across the smart motorway network.

MPs said: ‘Although the rollout of SVD technology is being accelerated, there are serious doubts about its reliability and effectiveness.’

The report cites evidence from the AA, which in turn cited Highways’ report on the low detection rate of the SVD system being rolled out.

It notes that the AA had called for an independent evaluation of SVD and calls on the DfT and National Highways to commission the Office for Rail and Road (ORR) to conduct an independent evaluation of the effectiveness and operation of SVD technology.

The ORR told Transport Network that it could carry out such and evaluation without a direct commission, if it fell within its performance and efficiency remit. A spokesperson said: ‘We welcomed the opportunity to provide information to the committee and are discussing the report’s recommendations with government.

‘Earlier this year the secretary of state for transport asked us to undertake an independent study into All Lane Running motorway data and of course we stand ready to assist and advise the Government as it considers the report’s recommendations.’

MPs also said that compliance and enforcement of Red X signs, which are used to close lanes once an incident is detected, ‘remains problematic’, noting that cameras capable of enforcing compliance will not be fully rolled out until September 2022.

The report also recommends that the DfT and National Highways should:

  • retrofit emergency refuge areas (ERAs) to existing ALR schemes to make them a maximum of one mile apart, decreasing to every 0.75 miles where physically possible;
  • insert the emergency corridor manoeuvre into the Highway Code to help emergency services and traffic patrol officers to access incidents when traffic is congested;
  • beginning in September 2022, task the ORR with evaluating the Department’s progress, particularly the incidences and response times for live lane breakdowns and educating drivers on the correct action to take.

It said the DfT and National Highways should pause plans to convert dynamic hard shoulder motorways until the next Road Investment Strategy and use the intervening period to trial alternative ways in which to operate the dynamic hard shoulder to make the rules less confusing for drivers.

However, MPs said they are not convinced that reinstating the hard shoulder on all ALR motorways will improve safety and that the evidence suggests that doing so could put more drivers and passengers at risk of death and serious injury.

‘The Government is right to focus on upgrading the safety of all-lane running motorways,’ the committee said.

AA president Edmund King said: ‘This is a pragmatic report which reflects many of the actions we had been calling for. We have campaigned consistently for ERAs at least every three quarters of mile and have been pushing for a rapid retrofit programme. The committee also takes up our proposal for All Lane Running schemes to revert to the hard-shoulder between 7pm-7am to avoid confusion and to offer a refuge to counter live lane collisions that happen at night.

‘We also called for better evaluation of the Stopped Vehicle Detection technology and questioned why it hadn’t been fitted before schemes opened. The report reflects our view that controlled motorways with a hard shoulder are the safest option and that the business case for these should be examined.’

The RAC’s head of roads policy, Nicholas Lyes, said: ‘We’re pleased to see the committee has taken a different view over the Government’s plans to scrap dynamic hard shoulder schemes. We continue to believe that these schemes could in fact be made the new standard as they still offer somewhere to stop away from live traffic in the event of a breakdown during quieter times, while still accommodating more traffic at busier times. They have also demonstrated very good levels of safety.’

Labour’s shadow transport secretary, Jim McMahon MP, said: ‘This clearly confirms Labour's longstanding position that ministers have been wrongly pressing ahead on smart motorways when the overwhelming evidence warns against it.

‘We know smart motorways in their current form, coupled with inadequate safety systems, are not fit for purpose and are putting lives at risk. Reinstating the hard shoulder while full investigations are carried out need not be costly - the transport secretary could do so with a single phone call.

‘The Government must finally listen to what it is being told by countless victims' families, or we face more tragedy on our roads.’

A DfT spokesperson said: ‘This is a serious piece of work which we will engage with closely in the months ahead.

‘We’re pleased that the TSC recognises that reinstating the hard shoulder on all all-lane running motorways could put more drivers and passengers at risk of death and serious injury and that we’re right to focus on upgrading their safety, as the secretary of state committed to doing when he became transport secretary.

‘We recognise that improvements have not always been made as quickly as they could have been in the past, but as the committee has set out, the Transport Secretary is absolutely committed to making Smart Motorways as safe as possible, including committing £500m on upgrades and the faster rollout of Stopped Vehicle Detection.’

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