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Smart Motorways - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:43 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Jordan Lord Jordan Labour 3:43 pm, 13th February 2020

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.