LET’S give two cheers that the national roll-out of smart motorways has been put on hold by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.
I’ll reserve the full three until we hear that he has scrapped this lethal policy altogether and puts in place measures which reverse the 200 or so miles of motorway it already covers.
To be fair, that’s just a tenth of all the motorway miles in the UK. Yet, the stretches which have already been converted, losing their hard shoulder and reliant on overhead cameras to control lanes and speed limits, represent some of the busiest of all roads. Ergo, more accidents. And sadly, more deaths.
Highways England itself admits that breakdowns are a staggering 216 per cent more dangerous on smart motorways than on ‘normal’ ones. The main issue is the time it takes for smart motorway CCTV to spot what’s known as a ‘live lane breakdown’ to trigger lane closure and protect motorists, passengers and recovery and emergency services; the AA, using Highways England data, says the average time for this response is 17 minutes and one second.
That’s almost 20 minutes in a life-threatening situation. And the official advice is still to exit your vehicle if you break down and find a place of safety to wait? It’s surprising the death toll isn’t higher.
I’ve been driving for more than a quarter of a century and, as an experienced driver, I find these smart motorway rules extremely stressful. And that’s without even breaking down or worse, suffering a collision or tyre blow-out (touch wood) at 70mph. Even Highways England boss, Jim O’Sullivan, has warned that they are “too complicated” for drivers. And the head of the Police Federation, John Apter, calls them a “death trap”.
What more evidence does Mr Shapps need? He should live where I do, in South Yorkshire; in 10 months five people have lost their lives on the 16-mile stretch of the M1 designated ‘smart motorway’. That’s one tragic loss every two months.
The campaign against the policy has been led by indefatigable Rotherham Labour MP Sarah Champion, whose constituent, Jason Mercer, 44, and a Mansfield man, Alexandru Murgreanu, were killed by a lorry on the so-called ‘smart motorway’ stretch on the M1 near Junction 34 last year after they pulled over following a minor collision.
I can see this motorway stretching south from the back of my house; every time I spot a line of red brake lights, or eerily, no traffic at all, I wonder if another poor soul has lost their life near Meadowhall because they’ve broken down miles from a so-called ‘refuge area’.
If this was happening on the railways perhaps, it would have been curtailed months ago. Especially when you add the South Yorkshire death toll to the total number of people – currently 38 – who have died nationally on smart motorways.
On a major UK road trip – around 600 motorway miles – for work last week, I played devil’s advocate with myself (it was a long drive). If I was in charge, how would I justify the existence of smart motorways?
I totally accept the need to ease congestion and free up traffic by adding an extra lane. Although the cost of conversion has to be taken into consideration, it is no doubt less expensive than widening the motorway.
In many areas, adding a new lane perhaps would not be technically possible, or desirable. There may be local objections on environmental grounds for instance.
I can see why smart motorways were considered a practical solution to help traffic flow, but the programme seems to have been rolled out with too little consideration for how the technology would work in practice.
Mr Shapps is saying he wants to see incontrovertible evidence that it is dangerous. “We have to do this as a fact-based process,” he insists. However, it’s perfectly clear to me – as I’m sure it is to everyone else who drives – that ‘all lanes running’ is nowhere near as safe as an ordinary motorway, where the hard shoulder is fully available in case of emergency.
Still, for now, Mr Shapps has been put on the spot and rightly so. Former transport committee chair, Lilian Greenwood, Labour MP for Nottingham South, reminded him that recommendations promised urgently three months ago had still not surfaced.
The Government review into smart motorways has no doubt been delayed, like most things, by Brexit. From now on there should be no excuse: It must deliver its results and quickly, before more people are killed.