Smart motorways: We need the truth


The heartbreaking Panorama programme last night on smart motorways - 'Britain's Killer Motorways' - has put enormous pressure on the Government and Highways England to act. The first thing that should be demanded is the truth.

The original reporting on the number of deaths and an enormous 20-fold rise in near misses on one section is shocking enough; the interviews with the families that lost loved ones is emotionally distressing enough, and the knowledge that some of these deaths could have been avoided is utterly devastating.

Smart motorways convert the hard shoulder to a live lane to create extra capacity.

The AA's Edmund King said: 'I have listened to some of the calls from members that have broken down in that situation [breaking down on a live lane in the middle of the motorway]. If they are in a live lane, they can't get out of the car on the left-hand side.

'The advice is quite bleak, keep your seat belt on, keep your hazards on, put all the lights on you can and dial 999. It is an emergency situation that we are putting people in.'

An 'all lane running' smart motorway with the hard shoulder permanently removed

The AA says that if you break down in live traffic you are 'a sitting duck' for on average more than half an hour - 17 minutes to be spotted, three minutes to activate a sign, and another 15 minutes to get someone out to help you.

Transport secretary Grant Shapps flailed as he was asked what to do if your car breaks down in live traffic.

'Stay in your car, unless you are in the nearside lane and you can get over the barrier,' he said, because that is indeed safer than trying to get out of the car and cross the live lanes of a motorway.

The Panorama journalist baulked; stay in your car and 'hope you don't get hit, that's your advice?'

Mr Shapps responds 'it's not my advice, it's the advice of the police and the highways agency (sic)'.

This doesn't come across as referring to the experts, this comes across as passing the buck - especially as the police don't even want smart motorways. Highways England also seems to be subtly suggesting the whole thing is now out of their hands.

The government-owned company, formally so proud of its independence, refers to how smart motorways were 'approved by ministers' and suggests the lack of committed future funding - the second Road Investment Strategy (2020-2025) is now long overdue - is preventing them plan a further roll-out of stopped vehicle detection (SVD) technology.

Panorama said it understands a roll-out of radar SVD technology is due over the next three years. However, when Transport-Network and our sister publication Highways asked for confirmation neither the Department for Transport or Highways England would go on the record.

This is nothing more than spin or speculation as Highways England has previously admitted on the record that it cannot give a proper date for retrofitting the technology.

And more importantly, the current technology doesn't even work properly. No one knows when a fully functioning system will be in place.

There are grave limitations to SVD technology, as it can't identify stopped vehicles in high volumes of traffic due to an unmanageable amount of false positives.

When this was pointed out, Highways England suggested a 'MIDAS' (loop) system could be used, but it also admitted this was an inadequate proxy.

Highways England once said it knew the SVD technology worked because of results from the M25; it later admitted the difficulties with high volumes of traffic.

Highways previously raised concerns about the different levels of technology and styles of smart motorway across the country, which made comparing the overall safety of the programme with conventional motorways a false comparison.

Sir Mike Penning, transport minister between 2010-2012, approved smart motorways based on how they operated on the M42, where emergency refuge areas were 600 metres apart. Now in some areas, ERAs on smart motorways are 2.5 miles apart.

He now agrees they are 'endangering people's lives'. The Police, the AA, and the public have major concerns. The only people who seem to feel there is a future for smart motorways are the government and Highways England.

They suggest we have to be governed by facts and expert analysis of risk, and indeed that is true. No matter how tragic it may be for one family to lose a loved one, we must do what is best for all families in the long-run.

The problem is the facts have not been forthcoming, the true risk has not been made clear. The experts have left us in doubt.

The 'facts' were supposed to tell us that smart motorways are as safe as conventional motorways and yet when Mr Shapps called a review of the system last year and said it would be ready within a couple of months, we found that these 'facts' were not exactly to hand.

The review is now months overdue and we are still being told Highways England is gathering 'the facts'.

Of course, new data emerges all the time, but this is not reassuring. As things stand another 300 miles of smart motorway will open in the next five years.

It seems clear that if the programme survives the review, dynamic hard shoulders - which switch between a hard shoulder and a live lane - will be banned and ERAs will be mandated every 600 or 800 metres.

Is this enough? Questions certainly remain. And besides the safety of the actual smart motorways, we have a right to question the process behind them.

  • Why were so many different types approved as part of one roll-out?
  • Why were ERAs reduced from 600m to 2.5 miles?
  • Why were they rolled out without SVD technology that fully worked?
  • Why did some routes have no SVD tech at all?
  • Why were we told so many different stories about SVD?
  • Why are still being told stories that don't appear true?

That is before we even get into red X enforcement - if a lane is closed because of a stopped vehicle for instance, and there is a red x in the gantry above it, you have to change lanes.

However, this seems not to have been enforced by the police. Type approval for a camera system that could hand out fines came in years late. The system has been in place for about six months now but still it seems no one has been fined.

Highways England, which has been sending letters to drivers warning them they could be fined, could not even give details of if, when or where any police action has been taken.

Mr Shapps says: 'Let's recognise that roads are never going to be completely safe. One and half thousand people die a year on our roads in total [closer to around 1,800], about 38 people have lost their lives on smart motorways since 2015. But I want them to be the safest possible environment.'

Nothing is completely safe, but this is not an attitude we as a sector should grow comfortable with. The horrendous number of deaths on our roads should not be something to hide behind but to be appalled by.

Lessons must be learned from the roll-out of smart motorways and answers given not just on why it was done and whether it was right, but also how it was done - because a picture is building of a programme that never seemed to see the full danger ahead until it was too late to turn.

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