Huw Merriman (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)
I am very pleased to be able to make this statement, and not just to commend a set of recommendations from the Transport Committee to the House, but to welcome the acceptance of every one of them by the Government. In so doing, I would like to thank my predecessors as Chair of the Committee. Back in 2016, when I was a member of the Committee, the then Chair, Dame Louise Ellman, made a series of recommendations that were not accepted by the Government. Those calls were correct back in 2016, and if they had been accepted, I contend, we would have been in a better place. In 2019 my predecessor as Chair, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), continued to shine a light on some of the failings of smart motorways. These recommendations are therefore the result of the endeavours of three successive Transport Committees. I would like to thank not only the Chairs, but the members and staff of the Committee, for their tireless work and commitment over the past six years—I see that my Committee Clerk is at the Table, keeping a watchful eye.
By way of explanation, all smart motorways have design and technology that helps to control the flow and behaviour of traffic, but there are three types that differ in how they treat the hard shoulder. First, all lane running motorways do not have a hard shoulder at all but rely on a series of emergency refuge areas for stranded motorists. In 2019 there were 141 miles of all lane running motorway, with a fatality rate, measured from 2015 to 2019 per 100 million vehicle miles, of 0.12%. Secondly, controlled motorways have a permanent hard shoulder. In 2019 they accounted for 141 miles, with a fatality rate of 0.07%. Thirdly, there are dynamic hard shoulder motorways, where the hard shoulder is switched to a lane at busy times of day. In 2019 there were 63 miles of this design, with a fatality rate of 0.09%. The remaining 1,500 miles or so of conventional motorway has a hard shoulder but no smart design. It has a fatality rate of 0.16%.
The data between 2015 and 2019 therefore suggests that smart motorways have lower fatality rates than conventional motorways. However, taking 2019 on its own, when more smart motorways had been rolled out, shows that the reverse is true. Of the three smart motorway designs, all lane running had the highest fatality rate.
The Committee launched its inquiry in February last year and reported in November. The Government shared their response with the Committee this week. In the response, the Government agreed to the following key recommendations. First, to pause the roll-out of all-lane running motorways yet to commence construction until five years of data is available for those built before 2020. Secondly, to pause the conversion of dynamic hard shoulder motorways to all-lane running motorways and revisit the case for controlled motorways.
Thirdly, to retrofit emergency refuge areas to existing all-lane running motorways to make them no further than 1 mile apart—the Government have announced £390 million of funding for this. Fourthly, to grant powers to the Office of Rail and Road, the roads regulator, to evaluate the Government smart motorways project plan. Starting this year, the regulator will report on progress annually and carry out an evaluation of stopped vehicle detection technology and other safety measures.
Fifthly, to introduce an emergency corridor manoeuvre into the highway code to help emergency services and traffic patrol officers to assess incidents, subject to consultation. Sixthly, to investigate the granting of new road safety powers to the roads regulator before changes to design or operational standards are implemented on our motorways and key roads. Finally, to revisit the entire business case and rationale for smart motorway conversion.
The headline is, of course, the pausing of new smart motorways, but during this time, the Government and National Highways will not just be evaluating whether smart motorways are safe enough to meet our high standards, but, for the 141 miles that are all lane running, be retrofitting emergency refuge areas, stopped vehicle detection technology, and CCTV technology to make these smart motorways safer than they are at present.
It is on this retrofitting exercise that I wish to reflect, and I suggest that the lesson must be learned. In the six years that I have been following this project, I have been struck by the focus on creating capacity in the motorway network. That is understandable. Traffic on the strategic road network is projected to increase by up to two thirds over the next 30 years. Ministers and National Highways have argued that a failure to deliver extra capacity, such as can be done via removing the hard shoulder, would cause congestion that could ultimately cause drivers to switch from motorways on to less safe local roads.
However, there is another set of targets and statistics that needs more focus. National Highways has a target of zero harm, by which it aims to reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured on the strategic road network to a level approaching zero by 2040. As part of that commitment, there is a target to reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured on the road network by 50% in 2025, compared with the baseline figure of 2005 to 2009. I see conflicts in this target, just as I saw flaws in the roll-out of smart motorways. Let me give a couple of examples.
First, back in 2016, the Committee was assured that stopped vehicle detection technology would be fitted going forward. By 2019, only 18% of all lanes running motorways had this incorporated. Secondly, we recommended that smart motorways should adopt the specification used in the M42 pilot, with emergency refuge areas every 500 metres. However, these are now typically spaced every 2.5 km on all lane running motorways. It therefore comes as no surprise that 40% of all breakdowns on those motorways occur on a live lane, because at 2.5 km intervals, it takes 75 seconds to reach an emergency refuge area driving at 60 miles an hour, versus the 30 seconds it would have taken had our spacing recommendation been followed. It also follows that, on average, it takes 17 minutes to reach a motorist stranded on a live lane. It comes as little surprise, therefore, that 79% of drivers interviewed by the RAC are concerned that they would not reach such a refuge area.
The upshot is that, instead of drivers using less congested smart motorways and coming off more dangerous local roads, we are faced with the opposite—drivers not feeling safe using smart motorways and moving on to those less safe local roads. This could have been avoided had equal emphasis been placed on safety technology. Instead, the roads were reopened before such measures had been completed. When the Committee put this to the chief executive of the agency in 2019, he maintained that drivers wanted to try the road once the tarmac had been delivered. This culture of capacity first and safety mitigation later needs to be eradicated. I believe that it will be, and I welcome the response of the current chief executive of the agency to our report. He could have been very defensive. Instead, he assured the Committee in his response that he would take on board the recommendations.
I recognise that, for some, this report and its recommendations do not go far enough. Some would like to see the hard shoulder brought back immediately. To those I have this to say. First, hard shoulders also kill. This is why it can be argued that all lane running motorways have a lower fatality rate than conventional motorways with a hard shoulder. Secondly, the new lane of a smart motorway cannot be just turned back to the hard shoulder without substantial engineering works. This would take years. Thirdly, closing the motorway could cause chaos on local roads where the fatality rate is that much greater. However, with the commitment to revisit the business case and the safety performance over the coming years, this may be an action that is required in the years to come.
I can assure the House that the Transport Committee will continue to monitor the delivery of these recommendations. One of the less reported measures is the granting of powers to the Office of Rail and Road to give more independence. Currently, the regulator does not have the powers over road safety in the same way that it does over rail. Indeed, of the regulator’s 350 employees, only 19 focus on roads; the rest focus on rail. This balance will need to change, but I agree with the Government that we need to get the inclusion of regulation right. With every new road, there will be a danger. We cannot use this as a reason to halt road building.
I am delighted that the Government have accepted the Transport Committee’s recommendations. It demonstrates that Select Committees can not only scrutinise, but see reason and reasonable recommendations turned into policy. I thank the Secretary of State for Transport, the Roads Minister Baroness Vere, and the Minister who is here today—the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Trudy Harrison)—for doing so. Thank you for allowing me to make this statement, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am happy to take questions from Members.