Article Published in The Daily Mail
As motorists, it is our greatest fear.
A blowout, electrical malfunction or mechanical failure suddenly leaves you stranded in a motorway lane... and there is no hard shoulder or emergency lay-by within reach.
You can only pray that the ‘smart motorway’ technology — that is supposed to notify the control rooms monitoring traffic flow of a problem within an average of one minute — is operational.
That traffic officers will be alerted, that other drivers will be warned via overhead signs, and that the lane will be closed until you can be rescued.
But, as a hard-hitting, undercover Daily Mail investigation revealed earlier this year, what is known as ‘stopped vehicle detection’ (SVD) technology, which relies on CCTV and warning signs, is prone to failure and a swathe of the vital cameras it relies on are faulty.
As a result, such a breakdown with no route out, with other traffic hurtling past you — and, even more terrifyingly, coming up fast behind — can result in a catastrophic pile-up, with serious injuries or fatalities.
Tragically, this has been the reality for too many people.
It is believed that between 2015 and 2019, 53 people lost their lives on the smart motorways that have been rolled out on a trial basis across the country.
For 2018, the fatality rate was one third higher than on comparable motorways with hard shoulders.
Since 2012, when I first joined the Transport Select Committee, the safety of smart motorways has been a constant worry.
There are two types of system — ‘all lanes running’, where the hard shoulder is scrapped permanently, and the ‘dynamic’ form in which the hard shoulder becomes a ‘live lane’ at busy times.
In 2016, following an inquiry, we challenged the safety and roll-out of such motorways. All sorts of reassurances were made by the then Highways England [now National Highways] about safety measures such as SVD.
Today, after five years in which our warnings went unheeded, we are urging ministers to stop building smart motorways with immediate effect. A failed and dangerous experiment must come to an end now.
Lives cannot continue to be put at risk by this ill-conceived attempt to save money while expanding the capacity of our motorways.
Smart motorways were introduced by the Labour government in 2006, with the first trial on the M42 around Birmingham.
Since then, this type of traffic management — intended as a means of increasing motorway capacity when traffic is heavy — has become increasingly ‘popular’.
‘Popular’, that is, only in the minds of the bean-counters in the civil service and the highly paid top brass at National Highways.
They have consistently given bad advice to successive government ministers of all parties and, as the committee concludes, failed to resolve safety concerns.
Green activists like smart motorways, too, because they never want to see any expansion of the road network under any circumstances — even if it would give them more places to glue themselves to.
But this scheme has always been viewed with high suspicion by most motorway users and motoring organisations.
And rightly so. It defies common sense to take away the one lane — the hard shoulder — that has long been a (relatively) safe haven for those suffering breakdowns or accidents.
It is no wonder, as an RAC poll found recently, that six in ten motorists want the scheme scrapped. The chairman of the Police Federation, John Apter, has condemned it as ‘inherently dangerous’.
And that is before we consider the fact that much of the technology is not 100 per cent operational, or even in working order, along much of the 360 miles of motorway (north and south bound) from which the hard shoulder has been removed so far.
As the Mail has reported, failures are numerous and persistent and I make no apology for repeating some of them here.
This newspaper found that one in ten cameras are not fully working — either broken, facing the wrong way or misted up.
Software crashes in the six regional control rooms are frequent. One control room logged an average of nearly two CCTV and technical faults every day throughout 2020.
Some of the hardware dates to 2004 — described by a staff member at National Highways as ‘a lot of faulty c***’.
A frustrated camera operator told the Mail that his team had been unable to control signs and signals for several hours at a time.
Drivers were told that lanes were open when they were closed, while speed limits signage could not be changed.
On one day, September 17 this year, the Mail discovered that almost half the cameras along one of the busiest sections of the M25 were out of action.
Emails between senior managers acknowledged the existence of blindspots on this motorway, which sees perhaps the heaviest traffic in Britain.
On the same day, one in four cameras at junction 34 of the M1 near Sheffield were out of order or facing the wrong way — a particular concern, since this section of road is a notorious accident blackspot.
A comment from a control operative overheard by the Mail’s reporter best sums it up.
After an HGV struck a bridge on the M1, a lorry fire on the A14, and vital signals needed on smart motorway sections of the M25 and M4 were not operational, he joked: ‘We’ve got no signals, you’re all going to die… whichever god you believe in, start praying now.’ Black humour, one assumes, but not so very far from the truth.
Two weeks ago, whistleblowers at National Highways told the Mail that on one section of the M62, outside Manchester, two-thirds of the roadside message screens were out of action.
Indeed, there are many members of National Highways staff who believe the organisation has been rolling out flawed technology and knowingly putting lives at risk.
Certainly, the catalogue of system failures and glitches is horrendous and data about wider problems is often difficult to obtain.
In 2019, we were assured that all new smart motorways would have SVD technology fitted as standard, and existing stretches would be retrofitted. This has not happened.
Earlier this year, amid plans to increase the total of ‘smart motorways’ to 500 miles, the same commitments were again made to the committee. Nothing has changed. This is unacceptable.
Smart motorways are a failed policy and it is time to pull the plug. Drivers know that and now ministers should accept it, too.
We need to invest in expanding the motorway network so it can cope with increased traffic. And we have the money to do so.
Vehicle excise duty and fuel duty combined raised nearly £35 billion in 2019/20, of which only £11 billion was reinvested into our roads.
Given current petrol prices, the Treasury’s coffers are also brimful of money from drivers with all the extra VAT income.
And I would go further: we need a full public inquiry to ensure those who brought in this lamentable policy are held to account for the failings — and the deaths — their decisions have caused.