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Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:10 pm on 5th February 2020.

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Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee 6:10 pm, 5th February 2020

Recent years have seen a rise in emissions, largely caused by increased traffic growth, which is encouraged by an ever-expanding road building programme. Although the Government are expanding roads, they are not concentrating on safety, which is specifically what I want to focus on.

My constituent Jason Mercer was killed last summer on an all-lane running section of the M1 in South Yorkshire. All-lane running is often branded by Highways England and civil servants as “smart motorways”. It is not. All-lane running means using the hard shoulder as a permanent live traffic lane without fitting the required safety features. Mr Mercer and another motorist were forced to stop, following a minor collision. Without a hard shoulder, they were left vulnerable and exposed in a live lane when one of their vehicles was struck by a lorry, killing both men instantly. The lack of hard shoulder also meant that the men eventually had to be airlifted out because there was no other way for the emergency services to reach them.

The same 16-mile stretch of the M1 that claimed Jason’s life has seen five fatalities in just 10 months. Nationally, the number of fatalities on “smart motorways” continues to rise at an alarming rate. The Secretary of State recently announced that no further smart motorway schemes would begin until the outcome of the Government review of their safety. He has insisted that smart motorways must be at least as safe as traditional motorways or should not proceed. That is most welcome, but what about the existing death traps?

I want to be extremely clear: all-lane running is fundamentally flawed. It is profoundly unsafe. The existing sections need to be reverted back to roads with a hard shoulder, with immediate effect. If we keep all-lane running open, more people will die, simply to increase motorway capacity on the cheap. That is not hyperbole. Yesterday, The Times detailed a 2012 report by the Highways Agency—the precursor to Highways England—that stated that for the 10 miles of the M1 that borders my constituency, the Highways Agency had decided not to include the planned safety features, as that would increase the cost of the scheme by between £1 million and £2 million—just under 2% of the total budget. There have been five deaths in the past 10 months on that stretch of motorway, for a saving of £1 million to £2 million. Each death, in near identical situations, was because Highways England’s penny-pinching meant that the safety features were never installed.

Highways England knew that rolling out all-lane running would result in deaths. That is not speculation: Jim O’Sullivan, the chief executive of Highways England, told the Transport Committee on 23 October 2019 that that was the case—that by avoiding the safety features, he was likely to see deaths. We have seen deaths. Highways England knew that the all-lane running motorways would kill. Someone, somewhere will have signed off a report that identified the risks and put a figure on the cost of saving lives—a cost that they decided it was not worth spending the money on. I have supported Jason Mercer’s widow, Claire, in her campaign. She is now looking to sue Highways England for corporate manslaughter. It is clear that Highways England knowingly failed in its duty of care to motorists.

A key safety feature that Highways England decided to scrimp on in South Yorkshire was refuges. We originally should have had six on our stretch of road, but we do not have them. Stopping the roll-out will not save lives on my stretch of road and in other constituencies. Will the Minister please, please revert all-lane running back to where it was—roads with a hard shoulder—until the money is found to put the safety features in place? If the Government cannot find the money, the roads should be left as they are, with a hard shoulder.