Written Evidence submitted by Dr Wendy Le – Las (RSM0080)
As an academic, my first reading of the Terms of Reference of this Investigation is that Smart Motorways are a “Good Thing” and “What can be done to convert the technophobic masses?”.
However, let me begin by being positive. Overhead gantries telling the public to “Stay in Lane”, specifying a speed limit or warning of an accident ahead are extremely useful. I would also suggest that instructions to “Stay in Lane” be installed wherever one motorway merges with another, especially en route leading to a port or airport when people are impatient for fear of missing a ferry or plane. That one instruction would have prevented the traumatic accident I recount below.
The big fear on the part of the public is what happens if you have a serious accident and there is no continuous hard shoulder. Whilst most of us would admit to human fallibility, the possibility of technological breakdown is less easily acknowledged by those working in hi-tech industries. They are often drawn from the sector of population with Asperger’s syndrome: life is a logical business and if it doesn’t work out like that, they have no Plan B. I know because I’m married to one, and we have a grandson who has inherited the same trait: brilliantly clever but unable to cope when the logical outcome doesn’t accord with reality. The unknown unknowns are off limits, too uncomfortable to contemplate.
For thirty years I was a professional planning consultant and later an Inspector: 1987-2017. Obviously, my job involved a lot of travelling usually in a large estate car containing all my documents and personal effects for a week or more’s stay some distance from home. For years I paid the RAC extra for a “Get you to work, Get you home” service. The following is part of a letter written to the RAC a short time after a serious accident in May 2014 on the M26, not a Smart Motorway, just a link between the M25 and the M20. Everything went wrong that evening but at least there was a hard shoulder nearby where I spent the next three hours.
“Just after 6 o’clock on 22nd May 2014, I was proceeding eastwards along the M26, a two-lane motorway. I was in the outer lane driving about 5mph because the traffic was backing up from the feed into the M20. Suddenly a Hungarian juggernaut appeared from the inside lane, trying to insert itself into the gap between my Skoda Octavia and the car in front. The TIR demolished the front left-hand wing of the car plus wheel. My car was immobilised. Somehow it was dragged across the motorway onto the hard shoulder.
I was travelling alone and was apparently uninjured i.e., no blood or broken bones. “Only” being in shock with blurred vision meant that I was considered well enough to get myself off the motorway. Highways Maintenance personnel were in the vicinity and took charge of the paperwork: the details of the Hungarian driver and a long list of witnesses to the accident. They had stressed that staying in my car on the hard shoulder was dangerous. I was given a high visibility poncho and foil blanket and told to stand behind the crash barrier for however long before someone might rescue me. I did not expect to be there for over three hours.
I was appalled by the RAC’s conduct:
This is a catalogue of human error has scarred me psychologically; the sudden sight of a vehicle approaching from the left makes me jump and the absence of a continuous hard shoulder fills me with terror. I know a number of people who are now afraid of travelling on motorways where there is no hard shoulder.
I am so grateful that the Select Committee on Transport has elected to look at the issue of so-called “Smart Motorways”. Clearly the geeks in charge of the MoT have never asked themselves how human beings of all ages and degrees of mobility, plus pets are supposed to reach Emergency Refuge Areas spaced 800m or 2500m apart? The idea is preposterous. What anyone needs in the event of an accident or a breakdown is a hard shoulder in the immediate vicinity. That the MoT fail to appreciate this is worrying. Is it staffed by robots?
Of course, the underlying assumption is that the technology has the network fully covered, which it doesn’t1, that the technology is fully functional at all times and in all weather conditions, and that the personnel operating it never make a mistake. The more links in the chain, the greater the likelihood that something or someone will fail. This is why the British public will never accept any variety of Smart Motorway without a hard shoulder to access when necessary. It also can provide a route for emergency vehicles.
From my own experience in 2014, I would like the Select Committee to consider the fate of accident victims who do not require hospital treatment. Had I had the “Good Fortune” to be visibly injured I would have been taken to hospital. I was singularly unimpressed by Highways England leaving a seventy-year-old woman by the side of the road, telling her that it was dangerous to stay on the hard shoulder, and expect her to climb over the barrier wherever it was possible to make a safe landing, and wait for a non-existent rescue. As I’ve said, I could have had other family members with me, not to mention the dog!
It seems to me that the Ministry of Transport would be better employed taking victims of accidents to a place of safety and making sure that all motor insurance companies have a hotline for those currently involved in an accident and a streamlined approach to every stage of its aftermath, including the payment of compensation. My dispute with the RAC went on for another nine months. It took a letter from our then MP, Sir Julian Brazier, for the matter to be settled and minimum compensation paid.
The MoT should remember that it is financed by taxpayers’ money to give a service to Human Beings not Big Tech.
1 Smart Motorway Radars Fail to Spot Broken Down Cars (The Times Monday March 22, 2021); 2Breakdowns more Lethal on Smart M-ways (The Times, March 31st, 2021) p.16