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Smart Motorways - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:08 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Lord Rosser Lord Rosser Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 4:08 pm, 13th February 2020

My Lords, I add my congratulations to those expressed to the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Pickering, on securing this timely debate.

The Government have obviously been aware that there is a problem for some time; the Secretary of State announced last autumn that they would be conducting a review, or evidence stock-take, of smart motorway safety as there were concerns that people were dying on them. What precisely were the figures on deaths and injuries on smart motorways that led the Government to institute the review, and when will we know its findings?

The Oakervee review into HS2 was also started last autumn and has already been completed, with some consequential decisions taken by the Government. Why then has this review into smart motorway safety not also been completed by now, bearing in mind that people’s lives could be at stake? Just how independent is a review led by the Department for Transport, which is hardly an impartial bystander on this matter? A review, if it is to be credible, has to look at the role and decisions of the Department for Transport and Highways England.

Last month, as a number of noble Lords have said, a freedom of information request told us that 38 people died on smart motorways in the last five years and that, on one section of the M25, since the hard shoulder was removed in April 2014, near misses had increased from 72 that year to 1,485 in 2019. A letter published recently in the Times read:

“In 2003 I was the police service’s national operational lead for the implementation of the M42 active traffic management scheme. The M42 scheme is 11 miles long and has emergency refuge areas (ERAs) sited approximately 500m to 800m apart, with more than 50 signage gantries. It has virtually total CCTV coverage, with more than 200 cameras monitoring all running lanes. When smart motorways were being planned I and a few others expressed our concerns about safety, particularly the expansion of the gaps between ERAs, but to no avail. Fatalities might have been avoided had the design of smart motorways not strayed from that of the M42 active management scheme. Smart motorways should be urgently reviewed and compared against the M42 scheme still in operation.”

Could the Minister say whether the in-house Department for Transport review is taking the advice of the Times letter writer, and reviewing and comparing smart motorways against the M42 scheme opened in 2006 and still in operation?

Smart motorways are not all the same. On some, the hard shoulder is opened at busy times; on others, it is permanently converted into a traffic lane. Regularly spaced refuge areas are used for emergencies. Smart motorways are intended to relieve congestion by increasing road capacity faster and at less cost than traditional road-widening schemes. New technology is being introduced to mitigate risks to road users, with a stopped- vehicle detection system operational on the M25.

Highways England and the Department for Transport say, in the Road Safety Statement 2019 published in July 2019:

“Early indications suggest that the more recent all lane running smart motorway schemes are also delivering a safety benefit.”

Could the Government say why, if that is the case, just three months later the Government, through the Secretary of State, announced a review into smart motorway safety?

The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Roadside Rescue and Recovery published a report into all-lane running smart motorways. The group concluded that the rollout of these smart motorways should be stopped until safety measures are put in place on all existing stretches of all-lane running motorways, including retrofitting smart motorways with stopped-vehicle detection systems. The RAC says that two-thirds of drivers tell it that the permanent removal of the hard shoulder compromises safety in the event of a breakdown.

An earlier report, from the Commons Transport Select Committee in 2016, stated that it was unable to support all-lanes running due to fundamental safety concerns. The Committee said:

“The All Lane Running design has been chosen on the basis of cost savings, and it is not acceptable for the Department to proceed with a less-safe design, putting people’s lives at risk, in order to cut costs.”

On 22 January, the Minister of State at the Department for Transport said, in a Commons debate:

The Secretary of State is, as we speak, putting the finishing touches on a serious package of measures”,—[Official Report, Commons, 22/1/20; col. 111WH.]

and that the package of safety measures would be “announced imminently”—obviously not that imminently, since it is now three weeks later and, as far as I know, we have heard nothing more. I hope the Government, in their response today, will be able to tell us more about the current position on addressing the safety of smart motorways than the Minister of State, who accepted there was a problem, did just over three weeks ago.