United Kingdom

STEPHEN GLOVER: How WERE we all driven down the one-way road to disaster on smart motorways? 

Let's play a game. Imagine you were Secretary of State for Transport, and executives from the quango Highways England came to see you with a wheeze about how to increase motorway capacity at relatively little cost.

You'd listen — of course you would. But I wager your jaw would drop in disbelief when the so-called experts explained that their brilliant plan involved turning motorway hard shoulders into an extra lane.

Then you'd ask, what would happen if a car breaks down or runs out of petrol. The clever chaps from Highways England would reply that in that eventuality, the driver would try to make it to the next lay-by. And if that weren't practicable? Well, better not think about that. Probably won't happen...

Any person with a modicum of common sense would send the geniuses packing. But that is not what happened back in 2006, when the Highways Agency (as it was then called) produced its dazzling idea for the Labour Transport Secretary, Douglas Alexander.

Let's play a game. Imagine you were Secretary of State for Transport, and executives from the quango Highways England came to see you with a wheeze about how to increase motorway capacity at relatively little cost. Pictured: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps

There are currently more than 20 sections of 'smart motorways' on seven different motorways. Just 37 miles have been fitted with a 'stopped vehicle detection system'  

That such an obviously hare-brained scheme was adopted, and subsequently championed by politicians of both major parties, tells us a great deal about how we are governed. Or misgoverned.

Ministers cede responsibility for a major innovation to an unaccountable quango — in this case the Highways Agency, but it might be Public Health England or one of a hundred other flawed and secretive organisations — and well-paid quangocrats proceed to make a pig's ear of it.

Smart motorways are in the news again because on Monday a coroner warned that they present an 'ongoing risk of future deaths'. David Urpeth ruled that the lack of a hard shoulder contributed to the deaths of two drivers on the M1.

Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu were killed near Sheffield in June 2019 after a lorry driven by Prezemyslaw Szuba smashed into a stationary van by which they were standing. Both men died instantly.

A tragedy, but a predictable one. It has been clear for a long time how lethal smart motorways are. In fact, it has been clear from the moment that Highways Agency unveiled a pilot scheme back in 2006 for what were originally known as 'managed motorways'.

Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu were killed near Sheffield in June 2019 after a lorry driven by Prezemyslaw Szuba smashed into a stationary van by which they were standing. Both men died instantly. Pictured: The scene of the crash on the M1

The national road safety charity Brake declared that the proposal to allow driving on hard shoulders 'could be a potentially life-threatening alternative'. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents was full of misgivings.

Yet in October 2007, Ruth Kelly (who had just become Labour's Transport Secretary) announced that the pilot scheme on the M42 had succeeded triumphantly. She declared: 'Fears that some people had about safety have not materialised.' In 2008, she opined that driving on hard shoulders was a 'win-win' for motorists.

Not the kind of victory most of us yearn for. According to a BBC Panorama investigation last January, 38 people died on smart motorways over a five-year period. An official report last March came up with a figure of 44 deaths since 2015.

Who knows how many people have died since the scheme was approved by Ruth Kelly? I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that many dozens probably have.

I'd like to be able to report that when the Tory-led Coalition took power in 2010, good sense was suddenly restored. Alas, no. Although in 2007 the Conservatives had rightly called the proposals 'a lame response to Britain's crippling congestion crisis', they now picked up the ball and ran with it.

According to a BBC Panorama investigation last January, 38 people died on smart motorways over a five-year period. An official report last March came up with a figure of 44 deaths since 2015. Pictured: The M3 smart motorway

Hundreds of miles of hard shoulders were gradually turned into extra lanes. When MPs on the Commons Transport Select Committee expressed a worry in 2016 that the Government was doing this on the cheap, Transport Minister Andrew Jones assured them this was not so.

In a spirit of fairness, I should say the Tories did have one triumph, or at any rate they regarded it as such. In 2013, the then Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, suggested that 'managed motorways' should be called 'smart motorways'. Can one imagine a more ludicrous misnomer?

Of course it is likely that ministers were happy to let Highways England, as it had become, get on with implementing the plan as it thought fit. Heaven forfend that the Department for Transport should be in charge of transport!

Tory MP Sir Mike Penning, who was Road Safety Minister from 2010 to 2012, told BBC Panorama that he and his colleagues had been misled by the quango. He said: 'What we signed off on is fundamentally different to what we see now, and there is no evidence smart motorways are safe.'

His specific charge was that lay-bys or refuges were supposed to be spaced 500 to 600 metres apart, but the gap between them became much larger — in many cases up to 1.5 miles.

Many motorists have died because they were unable to reach safety after breaking down on what should have been the hard shoulder, but was a motorway lane down which vehicles were travelling at fast speeds.

If Sir Mike is correct, Highways England should be publicly censured, and its senior executives disgraced. It is appalling that a quango should appear to ignore ministerial direction. It is no less appalling that ministers should have seemingly allowed them to get away with it.

This seems to me a parable of the way in which we are often ruled — by ministers who have their eye off the ball and won't take responsibility, and quangocrats who exhibit a fatal combination of incompetence and presumptuousness.

Many motorists have died because they were unable to reach safety after breaking down on what should have been the hard shoulder, but was a motorway lane down which vehicles were travelling at fast speeds. Pictured: M3 smart motorway

What should the Government do now? The coroner I mentioned, David Urpeth, said he would ask ministers for a safety review 'in the hope that lives can be saved'. If I were him, I wouldn't be holding my breath.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps let it be known on Tuesday that he is unhappy with the way Highways England is running smart motorways. This isn't the first time he has displayed agitation on the subject.

In October 2019, he launched a review into the safety of smart motorways after a spate of fatal collisions had led to a new wave of concern over their safety. An action plan was published last March.

Its most significant recommendation was to get rid of 60 miles of hard shoulders, which are turned on and off. That will deal with the teeth-clenching experience of driving down a motorway lane that was a hard shoulder a few minutes ago and will shortly become one again.

Now Mr Shapps has instructed Highways England officials to devise by the weekend a blueprint for fast-tracking the installation of life-saving measures on smart motorways before a crucial meeting on Monday. Tough talk, if late in the day, and after earlier tough talk that didn't produce very much.

The question Mr Shapps should be asking himself is whether these roads can ever be made safe. I doubt they can. A hard shoulder should always be a hard shoulder, and a lane in the carriageway should always be a lane.

And yet the Government still intends to create hundreds of miles of new smart motorways. They were always a dud idea, generated and overseen by a dud organisation. The solution is not to build any more of them, and to get rid of those we have as soon as is humanly possible.

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