Karl McCartney, Transport Select Committee member (pictured), writes: “Since 2012 when I joined the Transport Select Committee. The safety of smart motorways was a constant concern.
It is our greatest fear as motorists.
You suddenly find yourself stuck in a motorway lane due to a blowout, an electrical malfunction, or mechanical failure. There is no hard shoulder or emergency shelter.
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.
Traffic officers will be notified, other drivers will receive warnings via overhead signs and the lane will close until you are 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, it has been the reality of too many people.
It is believed that 53 people died on smart motorways in the country between 2015 and 2019.
2018 saw a one-third increase in fatalities than on motorways with hard shoulders.
Protestors marched with coffins from Westminster Bridge to Parliament Square, London, this Monday, protesting against smart motorways
Since 2012, when my first membership to the Transport Select Committee was made, I have been concerned about the safety of smart motorways.
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.
After an inquiry, we challenged the safety of these motorways and their roll-out in 2016. Highways England at the time offered a variety of reassurances. [now National Highways]Safety measures such as SVD.
After five years of warnings going unheeded, today we urge ministers to immediately stop building smart motorways. This dangerous and unsuccessful experiment must be stopped immediately.
These ill-conceived attempts to save money and increase the capacity of our motorways are not safe.
In 2006, the Labour government introduced smart motorways. The first trial was conducted on the M42 in 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 given poor advice to successive government ministers from all parties and failed to resolve safety concerns, according to the committee.
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.
It is believed that 53 people were killed by smart motorways in the country that were being rolled out on a trial basis between 2015-2019.
Motorway users and motoring groups have always held this scheme in high esteem.
This is right. 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’s not surprising that six out ten motorists voted to have the scheme canceled, according a RAC poll. The chairman of the Police Federation, John Apter, has condemned it as ‘inherently dangerous’.
This is before we consider that not all of the technology is operational along the majority of the motorway’s 360 miles (northbound and south bound), from which the hard shoulder was removed so far.
The Mail reported that there are many and persistent failures. I am not sorry for repeating 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 six regional control rooms are common. In 2020, one control room saw an average of almost two technical faults and CCTV per day.
Some of the hardware dates to 2004 — described by a staff member at National Highways as ‘a lot of faulty c***’.
Mail was told by a frustrated camera operator that his team couldn’t control signals and signs for many hours.
Drivers were told that lanes are open when they are closed and that speed limits signage cannot be changed.
An undercover Daily Mail investigation revealed earlier this year that 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
The Mail discovered almost half of the cameras along the busy section of the M25 were dead on September 17, 2017.
Senior managers confirmed the existence of blindspots along this motorway, which is home to some of the most heavy traffic in Britain, in emails.
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 National Highways whistleblowers told the Mail about a section of the M62 that was located outside Manchester. Two-thirds of the roadside messages screens were not in use.
Many National Highways staff members believe the organisation has been using flawed technology and knowingly putting lives in danger.
Vehicle excise duty and fuel duty combined raised nearly £35 billion in 2019/20, of which only £11 billion was reinvested into our roads
It is clear that the system glitches and failures are a terrible nightmare and that data about larger problems is often difficult to find.
We were told that all new smart motorways would come with SVD technology, and that existing stretches of the highway 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 have been a failure and it is time for them to be stopped. Ministers must also accept that the drivers know this.
We must invest in the expansion of the motorway network to handle increased traffic. We have the funds to do this.
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.
- Karl McCartney is the Conservative MP in Lincoln.