Written evidence submitted by Mr Andrew Stirland (RSM0057)
I worked for Highways England (HE) inc. predecessor The Highways Agency. from 2009 to 2019. HE followed a mantra of the highest levels of Health and safety consideration. However, at times it failed to apply fully this philosophy across all areas including the introduction and maintaining of Smart Motorways (SM’s).
My evidence will hopefully go some way to ensuring that the Government corrects existing problems and puts more effective measures in place to ensure HE does not repeat its mistakes.
Roads congestion has and continues to be problematic for individuals, businesses and the wider economy. Therefore the SM’s concept is sound (originally designated Managed Motorways until an MP advised that a ‘buzz’ word like Smart would better convey the hi-tech nature across to the public more easily). Although perception is such that the SM process is purely a cost saving exercise over building new roads that clearly will have a further cost implication on future maintenance.
The fundamental problem remains that despite attempts to ‘cover all eventualities’ for SM’s in their conception, HE failed to ensure some earlier improvements were given due consideration.
Sunday 4th April M5a (approx. 33). Whilst electronic signs depicted Red cross is enforceable, my wife and I were travelling in the nearside lane when we came across a vehicle attempting to exit a SM refuge area into our ‘live lane’. The refuge area does not provide adequate space for a vehicle to ‘get up to speed’ before re-entering the Motorway. I have witnessed this on several occasions and ultimately is what has driven me to provide my statement. I am afraid that it will be only a matter of time before a vehicle (minibus full of children for example) undertakes a similar manoeuvre only to be hit by an HGV. Of course similar incidents by whatever persons and vehicles is disturbing and unacceptable.
HE will tell you that the level of risk is equal to or lower than that of the current hard shoulder systems where indeed fatal accidents have and continue to happen. However, the inquiry needs to consider the following as an indication of the ‘mind-set’ of HE methods i.e.
During the initial ‘wider roll out’ of SM’s, staff were invited to attend department wide road shows that included a virtual experience of the new SM’s. It was also accompanied with a leaflet (the inquiry must obtain one of these from HE for review). Following this I made representations to the staff operating the ‘Road show’ as feedback but was staggered at their lack of understanding. I then raised the issue with a senior member of the Management Team who held significant responsibility for the rollout in our Region. During that discussion I pointed out that the refuge lane was woefully inadequate, for the reasons as discussed previously whereby not enough room is available to get back up to speed to re-join the carriageway and that similarly decelerating into the confined space could lead to a ‘rear end collision’ for example when a trailered vehicle tries to enter the refuge.
Our discussion was lengthy and I made it quite clear that a few Media based adverts and leaflets were not enough to re-educate the motoring populous. I gave a specific example of an elderly relative who even before the introduction of SM’s was not going to understand. The response I received was deeply concerning, as regardless of ones thoughts regarding the suitability of a driver, the fact remains that they held a valid driving license! I also expressed my concern regarding the operating mechanics of the SM system. Historically I had often raised concerns about existing customer information/instruction signs e.g. Variable Messaging System (VMS) as the technology was ‘old’ and fragile, being susceptible to failure/errors e.g. trying to introduce more description to messages was problematic in the extreme due to software issues and a real fear that permanent damage could be done to the system. At the time I found the whole issue frustrating as this undermined the safety ethos of the organisation and clearly there was a lack of admitting to government that urgent investment was needed. However, in my opinion the culture of the organization made it impossible to address such crises.
The relevance of the VMS situation to the SM’s is significant, as evidently poor management of the VMS concerned me with how HE might be establishing the use of technology in the SM’s. Fundamentally, cameras observe the lanes in a SM area, whereby control room operators constantly monitor for situations requiring intervention with signage e.g. vehicle breakdown in live lane therefore red X utilised to close lane/s to traffic. Of course, should a vehicle enter a refuge area, an operator does not know what the problem is for the driver and what their intentions might be UNLESS they pick-up the emergency phone at the refuge area. The operator is clearly detached from people that do not want to talk to them for a lack of understanding. They may believe that will be charged for removal from the Motorway etc.
Mistakes are common occurrence. As a regular user of the HE Network for the last 30 plus years, some of which driving commercially, I would suggest the vast majority of drivers can identify a situation where signage both static and electronic has been invalid/incorrect to the situation of the ground. This ultimately leads to a distrust with drivers and the potential for ignoring signage which has in essence defaulted attitudes towards SM’s. Of course fining the motorist responsible is one corrective measure approach, but we are ultimately considering potential danger that is waiting to happen. The punishment is of little use after the minibus event exampled earlier!
Even whilst working at HE, I often raised concerns about incorrect VMS I had witnessed to the detriment of my position. Further evidence can be provided. But again, it is the same ‘mind-set’ of HE that is now responsible for the SM’s.
Currently I have witnessed campaigns by HE re SM’s. The ‘Go left’ songs and TV adverts even to this day fall short of advising what people should do when they have entered the refuge area i.e. call the control centre. Again, a mind-set of HE where once a ‘small internal departmental group’ of people have thought about something, it becomes incredibly defensive about any suggestion that something is amiss. The reason for mentioning this is that it is the same approach for SM’s. This included, motoring advice to trailer owners but excluded boat trailers which have the highest failure rate of wheel bearings. The hugely popular campaign concerning checking tyres and oil before setting off on a journey forgot to mention checking the water! A fundamental but basic common cause of breakdowns. Winter campaigns excluding the suggestion of a towel that could be used to dry hands if exposed to the snow, leading to wet hands and exposure.
All examples I have given above were shared with senior management at the times. I also raised with the overseeing organization ‘Transport Focus’ who ignored my concerns. The whistle blowing system was not fit for purpose at that time.
For the inquiry to fully understand how HE considers safety as a priority, it should also consider other aspects of failures elsewhere, as they represent similar flaws in safety decision making e.g. along the M5 in central Birmingham and approaching London via M4 on the raised sections, it is apparent that extremely large electronic advertising signs are directly targeting HE network users. Again, discussions within HA at the time of raising remained lackadaisical in understanding that not only were they a distraction to our customers but the revenues were being missed that ultimately could be redirected for road safety purposes should policy be changed to accept these new signs as the norm.
The inquiry should understand that the level of failures both human and computer/mechanical would be totally unacceptable to the Aviation industry. Yet in simple terms the HA roads network carries far greater numbers of people so why have the problems not been addressed before now?
Whilst driving from S. Devon to N. Wales last weekend, the SM’s were inactive (apart from the speed cameras still recording max 70mph regardless of the SM variable speed limits being active or not). The nearside SM lane was debris stricken. Not significant like tyres but stones etc. The majority of SM refuge areas looked unkempt. A policy of HE had been to limit the amount of cleaning as it increased the risk to the workforce whilst undertaking such tasks. However, again I witnessed a tyre near the central reservation which had been there for so long that detritus had piled up to its full height and excessive plant growth was visible. During lockdown, would have been an ideal opportunity to ‘tidy-up’. Regrettably, HE often found its hands tied by inadequate and inflexible contracts. A matter that differed from region to region due to the operational structure of the business at the time.
My compiling and presenting of this information is I understand ‘Public Record’. In summary, I joined HA/HE as an experienced roads network user and commercially and customer focused professional. I believed I could have a positive impact upon the organization no matter how small. On reflection, I had some success but at great personal cost. I am compelled to ensure that mistakes that have been made re SM’s are fully reviewed and outcomes acted upon to ensure the original role of HE is fully delivered. It should be noted that the overwhelming vast majority of staff deliver an exceptionally high commitment to doing the right thing. So why are we still talking about it? Because some people have so sadly lost their lives. Let it not be in vain.