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Smart Motorways - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:14 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Transport) 4:14 pm, 13th February 2020

My Lords, my noble friend Lady McIntosh has provided an opportunity to debate a very topical subject and for that I thank her and all noble Lords who have contributed. I take this opportunity to share my deepest condolences with the families of those who have tragically lost their lives, and of course with the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, who has shared her story with us today. I have had the honour of meeting Meera Naran, the mother of Dev, who died last year. To honour his death and those of many others, we must redouble our efforts to make all our roads as safe as they can be.

Being in a vehicle is risky and dangerous. Although we have some of the safest roads in the world, nearly as safe as those in Sweden, around 1,500 people die every year. Motorways are the safest type of road. The fatality rate on an A road, for example, is four times higher than that on a motorway. But any death on our roads is one too many and where changes can be made, they should be. Furthermore, I recognise, as do many people in my department, that some drivers feel less safe on a smart motorway than on a conventional one, and we understand that. That is why the Secretary of State asked the department to carry out an evidence stock-take to gather the facts about the safety of smart motorways and to speak to a wide range of families and stakeholders to understand what could be done to make people feel safer. The stock-take will be published shortly.

Smart motorways increase capacity by around a third and help tackle congestion on some of our most busy roads. They help people get from A to B as well as keep our freight moving. They enable us to increase capacity while minimising the amount of additional land required. This has environmental benefits and it means that capacity can be added more quickly. But safety must be a priority. Highways England’s objective is to ensure that a stretch of road that is converted to a smart motorway is at least as safe as it was previously, and that is what the evidence stock-take is looking at.

It is worth reflecting on the conversion of a hard shoulder to a running lane—a key feature that increases capacity on smart motorways—and then looking at the provision and spacing of the emergency areas that essentially replace the hard shoulder and which can cause concern. It is worth noting up front that the hard shoulder on a traditional motorway is not a safe place to stop. One in 12 fatalities on a motorway happens on the hard shoulder. In contrast, there have been no fatal collisions in emergency areas on smart motorways. Furthermore, research shows that approximately 90% of stops on the hard shoulder of conventional motorways are unnecessary; they are simply not emergencies, and they involve putting not only the drivers themselves at risk but their passengers. We will come back to this again and again: public information and public awareness are key to road safety, and that is just one example of where it really would make a big difference.

In today’s schemes, the emergency areas on smart motorways are spaced at a maximum of 2,500 metres, which is about every mile and a half, so at 60 mph, a driver can get to one in under 90 seconds. A number of noble Lords have mentioned the closeness of the spacing of the ERAs on the M42. I will write in more detail about that because it is very important to understand that the M42 did not have the same system as we have now. It was a proof of concept and it is not the same system, so it is not comparable. However, as I say, I will write to explain.

Highways England undertook a review and found that there was no consistent correlation between the number of live-lane stops and the spacing of emergency areas, while the improved reliability of modern vehicles means it is rare that drivers are unable to reach an emergency area if they need to stop. Although there is no consistent correlation between the number of live-lane stops and the spacing of emergency areas, it is important that users feel as safe as they should. Highways England is therefore making a number of changes to the design of emergency areas, so where my noble friend is concerned that cost is given priority over safety, it is a fact that safety—or more specifically, the perception of safety—is in this circumstance being prioritised over cost. The specification for the maximum spacing of emergency areas on new schemes has been cut by a third from 1.5 miles to 1 mile, so a driver travelling at 60 mph would get to one within 60 seconds. This will help drivers feel more confident that they can find a safe place to stop in an emergency. All emergency areas will be fitted with orange surfacing to make them more visible and better advance signing to give information on exactly how far it is until you reach the next one.

One concern noted by many noble Lords is the risk of a live-lane breakdown. I hear and understand concerns about these breakdowns. Some of the images and telephone calls from smart motorways highlighted in the media were utterly heart-breaking. But it is also worth recognising that live-lane breakdowns can and do happen on any road. They happen on smart motorways, yes, but also on conventional motorways, dual carriageways—which often do not have a hard shoulder—and blind corners in country lanes. They happen, so what do we do about them? We must do what we can to minimise their risks in the circumstances in which they occur. On smart motorways we have technology that can help reduce that risk. In all those other circumstances, we do not.

A regional traffic control centre is usually made aware of a vehicle stopped on a smart motorway either by an alert from a traffic flow system—they monitor the cars as they pass under the gantries—then verified by CCTV, which there is along the entire stretch of smart motorways, or by the driver themselves or a member of the public calling the police, who then immediately notify the system. On a smart motorway the red X is then activated to shut the lane, alerting drivers to the incident, and speed limits are put up to slow the approaching traffic. The system can also be used to create an emergency access lane, if needed.

This goes back to education again, does it not? Observing the red X is a key part of motorway safety. In partnership with the police, Highways England has issued more than 180,000 warning letters to drivers who incorrectly drove along a lane with a red X in a number of smart motorway locations. These letters are having a positive effect, but we need to get the red X up as quickly as possible. We need to reduce response times in setting the red X and the other traffic management systems that work with it.

Highways England has installed stopped-vehicle detection on two sections of the M25 and will shortly install it on part of the M3. I point out to noble Lords that stopped-vehicle detection is very useful but is not a silver bullet. As noble Lords will know, radar was built to detect moving vehicles—things that move either through the sky or along the ground. If something is stopped, radar is not necessarily 100% accurate. It can help, but more technology is coming down the track. Highways England is looking at image-based technology, which may also be able to help.

What does one do if a vehicle is stopped on a live lane? What happens next? I noted reports in the media that the AA will not let its patrols stop in live lanes to help stranded motorists. That is very good, because they are absolutely not expected to. Highways England worked closely with the entire recovery industry to develop guidance on safe recovery from smart motorways. Vehicle recovery operators are never expected to work in a live lane on a motorway—not just a smart motorway—unless the scene has already been made safe by traffic officers or the police. Throughout the design and development of smart motorways, there has been extensive consultation with the emergency services to ensure that they have safe and effective operating procedures. This includes getting a vehicle off the road and to a place of safety.

I note the comments from the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, about electric vehicles. When I first heard this, I was absolutely astonished. Quite frankly, this is applicable not just to smart motorways but to every single road. We will need to be able to move electric vehicles, wherever they happen to stop or end their days. I assure her that I will now look into it with great gusto, provided I keep my job. Work is under way to look at short-term measures to make sure we can get electric vehicles off to places of safety as quickly as possible, on whichever road, because that certainly would be a large drawback to the introduction of electric vehicles.

Highways England signed a national agreement with the police, fire and ambulance services setting out the principles of operating smart motorways and responding to incidents, along with other regional operating agreements to cover the individual schemes within their areas. Even in heavy congestion, some traffic is usually able to pass the scene of an incident, creating enough space for drivers to pull over and allowing the emergency services to pass. If that does not work and there is a significant blockage, the police can access the incident from the other side.

A number of noble Lords mentioned near-misses. These figures have been bandied around. I wonder whether any noble Lords have looked into what these near-misses mean, what they are or where those figures came from. They are raw data and are probably correct, but there has been such an upturn since 2015 because there has been a massive increase in proactively reporting things that are called near-misses but might be very minor issues along the side of the road. None of the 1,485 incidents recorded on the M25 in the report resulted in any injuries at all.

I do not have long, so I will touch briefly on awareness. This all comes back to awareness. There is so much we must be doing to help our drivers drive safely—not just on smart motorways. I want our drivers to be driving more safely on every single road in our country. Anecdote and gut feel cannot be the main drivers of the critical decisions we face when it comes to road safety. We need to analyse the evidence.

As I mentioned, the evidence stock-take will serve as a significant measure to inform the public on how the Government will proceed with smart motorways. Safety on our roads is critical. We have an excellent record on road safety and our motorways are the safest roads, but still people die—around 1,500 a year. For as long as I am Roads Minister, that keeps me up at night.