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Smart Motorways - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:53 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Snape Lord Snape Labour 3:53 pm, 13th February 2020

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.