Smart motorways 'less safe to save costs'

Highways England has been criticised for drawing a ‘false equivalence’ between different types of hazard on motorways in assessing the safety of different smart motorways.

Sarah Simpson, a transport planning expert at Royal HaskoningDHV, appeared at a hearing of the Transport Select Committee with experienced traffic control technology engineer Mike Mackinnon and Professor Metz, honorary professor at the Centre for Transport Studies, University College London and a former chief scientist at the Department for Transport.

In March, Ms Simpson published a report on smart motorways, commissioned by law firm Irwin Mitchell, which represents the family of Jason Mercer who died while driving on an all lane running section of the M1.

She told MPs: ‘It is quite clear from my review of a wealth of documents, spanning back to 2000, and the 10-year plan that was written then, that the overarching factors that were involved in the decision to move from a dynamic hard shoulder smart motorway to an all-lane running motorway were predominantly focused on cost savings.

‘That is really evident in the national infrastructure plan that was issued in 2011 and consolidated in a document that examined the spacing of emergency refuge areas that was published in 2012. That specifically talks about the opportunity, because smart motorways were “very safe”, to design them to be less safe in order to save costs.’

She added that documents showed that not all of the hazards presented in an all-lane running motorway have been specifically dealt with in design.

‘Instead, a theoretical approach has been taken, looking for mathematical balance. That has drawn, effectively, a false equivalence between different types of hazard on the motorway, rather than looking to deal with specific hazards through the design process.’

Mr Mackinnon told MPs that he would also break down specific risks and would ‘query the data’.

He said: ‘Questions I would ask would include: how many accidents have occurred because there was no hard shoulder, and how many of them were actually fatalities? What is the percentage compared with general accidents?

‘General accidents on a motorway—at least in my understanding—are random. They are due to vehicles breaking down and drivers making mistakes. These accidents are due to a vehicle or a driver in a situation with no safe haven. You have people getting out of cars. How do you get disabled people out of cars? All of those issues should be somewhere in the safety case.’

Mr Mackinnon was asked by committee chair Huw Merriman whether regulator the Office of Rail and Road has ‘done a good enough job’ on safety? He replied: ‘No, I don’t think so.’

An ORR spokesperson told Highways: 'ORR is not the safety regulator for England’s strategic road network. ORR monitors Highways England’s performance against the delivery of the government set Road Investment Strategy.

'In our safety monitoring we aim to go above a backward looking approach and have undertaken research projects that provide Highways England with recommendations for how it can deliver better safety outcomes for road users.'

Professor Metz was asked by Ben Bradshaw MP whether his research showing that smart motorways encourage use by local traffic might ‘slightly play into the Government’s hands’ because motorways are safer than local roads.

He replied: ‘The presumption in that question is that there is a fixed amount of traffic and that, if it is shifted to a safer road, it will be safer. But there is not a fixed amount of traffic.

‘If we take traffic off local roads through a diversion, there are plenty of suppressed trips, so to speak, which will come in and take up the space. I would not expect there to be a net saving or a net benefit in terms of accident reduction through diversion.’

A later witness, Kate Carpenter, representing the Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation (CIHT), told MPs: ‘The actual safety performance in the most recent five years’ data shows that all forms of smart motorway—controlled motorway, dynamic hard shoulder and all-lane running - have a lower collision rate than a conventional motorway with a hard shoulder.

‘That might be counterintuitive, but that is the finding at the moment. Therefore, CIHT supports them, provided the environmental and economic case is clear.’

Ms Carpenter’s reference to ‘the finding at the moment’ appears to reflect the fact that more recent data has shown the fatality rate of all lane running schemes overtaking conventional motorways.

As Highways has reported, the only published five-year post-opening study of a smart motorway scheme shows its safety record deteriorating as traffic levels increased.

Highways England has so far refused to publish further long-term studies, raising fears that they may not be made available to the inquiry.

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