Hemel MP 'misled' over dangers of smart motorways roll-out - after sharp rise in deaths

The expansion of smart motorways should be stopped immediately after rise in deaths and near misses, says Hemel Hempstead MP who introduced them.

Tuesday, 28th January 2020, 10:42 am
Updated Tuesday, 28th January 2020, 11:24 am

Sir Mike Penning, who approved the scheme as transport minister, told BBC Panorama he was misled about the risks of taking away the hard shoulder from long stretches of motorway.

The programme revealed that 38 people have been killed on the smart motorway network in the last five years.

And on one section of the M25 near misses have increased 20-fold since the hard shoulder was taken away.

Stock photo

Sir Mike, who has been Hemel MP since 2005, said: "They are endangering people's lives. There are people that are being killed and seriously injured on these roads, and it should never have happened."

Smart motorways were introduced to improve the traffic-flow at busy times by using the hard shoulder as an extra lane and relying on overhead signs to warn traffic of hazards ahead.

A group of MPs, led by Sir Mike, accused Highways England of a “shocking degree of carelessness” over the introduction of the controversial road system, claiming commitments to improve safety have been abandoned or watered-down.

The All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Roadside Rescue and Recovery said a lack of action on emergency refuge areas (ERA) and stopped vehicle detection technology is putting motorists in danger, and has questioned the safety record of the roads.

The APPG chairman, Sir Mike Penning, said it was unacceptable that the roll-out continued while these issues remained unresolved and the space between ERAs remained as much as 2.5km.

Sir Mike said the current system did not resemble the design he agreed to.

“It gives me no pleasure to present these findings – they will be of little succour to the families who are without loved ones today because of design faults in all lane running smart motorways," said the former minister.

"We found that the roll-out of all lane running has been conducted with a shocking degree of carelessness – smart motorways today do not resemble the designs I signed off as roads minister.

"And Highways England appear to have casually ignored the commitments they made to the House of Commons in 2016. That is not acceptable. They have the safety of millions of road users in their hands.”

The group has said smart motorway roll-out should be stopped until there is at least three years’ worth of data from the whole network showing improved safety compared with conventional motorways.

It also wants to see the doubling the number of ERAs on existing roads to ensure they are no more than 800m apart; reducing the live lane breakdown rate to at least that of conventional motorways; fitting stopped vehicle detection systems to all existing roads; reducing vehicle recovery time “markedly” from the current 17 minutes.

Highways England said the plans to expand smart motorways were approved by ministers and added it is working to examine concerns over safety.

A spokesman said: "Any death on our roads is one too many, and our deepest sympathies remain with the family and friends of those who lost their lives."