Written evidence submitted by Professor Dr Peter Roberts
BSc (Geol) MSc (Mining) PhD (Civ Eng),
retired FICE FIMMM FIGeol FTI FGS CEng CGeol CText (RSM0087)



Motorways with safety lay-bys


I am presenting my submission as a private individual, and my evidence is, therefore, of that nature. I was appointed as a Fellow of the Institution of Civil Engineers at the age of 39, some forty years ago. I have been involved with the design and construction of this country’s motorways since the first-opened Preston bypass in Lancashire on the 5th December 1958, approximately sixty-three years ago.


I well remember how, when I passed my driving test, we drove from Derbyshire to Preston just to drive up and down the new bypass. It was amazing and without any speed limit whatsoever. Subsequently, as a young man and, later, as a well-qualified engineer, I have felt great pride in the design and implementation of the motorways and bypasses of our transport system. As a matter of some relevance, I was personally responsible for, and personally executed, the geotechnical design and construction of the Dalton By-Pass and the Dudley bypass.


As a motorist and private individual, I also consider myself to be qualified to comment upon the subject of motorways without safety lanes because I have driven since 1959 and passed my Advanced Driving Test, becoming a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists at the age of 21, some 58 years ago. I, therefore, have both personal and professional experience supporting my ability to make the following observations.


There is no benefit to be derived from ‘beating about the bush’ when observing that the only possible reason for wishing to convert our excellent motorway design from one with a dedicated non-running safety lane to an inferior one with intermittent emergency points is the saving of money. No amount of obfuscation can cosmetically disguise that fact.


As a professional intimately involved in the design of our motorways, I know this to be true.


As both a professional and a private citizen, I express my firm view that the advent of such motorways is little short of engineering madness. No engineer in his or her right mind would opt for such a development with any hope of successfully justifying it as an engineering advance or driver-experiential improvement over what we already had.


The only problem that had developed with our motorway design over the years was that the standard three-lane construction had become inadequate along certain sectors for their increased traffic flows.


There were three solutions to this in principle, and the relevant arguments between them are:


Simply increasing the through flow on a single motorway is not a preferred solution because the fundamental problem associated with all motorway systems is the dissemination of outflow traffic from the motorway onto the normal (pre-existing) roadway network. 


You build a superb motorway from A to B that moves vehicles along it at an enormous rate, and then you disgorge that high-volume flow onto a two-thousand-year-old roadway system developed originally for horse and cart transport. Therefore, it is evident that increasing the throughflow capability of traffic down a motorway may seem to be a laudable objective while one is sitting on the motorway, but implemented alone, it will only result in increased congestion at all intermediate and terminal outflow points. 


Thus, any proposed solution to the only problem our motorways were experiencing should not be to simply increase the carriageway flow capacity. The ideal solution that we should implement would be to build more, discrete, motorways with their own well-designed traffic dissemination road systems. Unfortunately, this ideal engineering solution would be financially exceedingly costly and socially divisive. But, in terms of the arguments related to the Committee’s review, we must recognise it as the best optional solution to the only problem we were and are experiencing.


If we don’t adopt the ‘additional motorways’ solution, we have to consider the next most effective solution. Add one or more (preferably more) full running lanes to our motorways wherever flow congestion was being experienced, together with the concomitant upgrading of the inflow and outflow dissemination roadways along and at the ends of the motorways. This would, clearly, be the perfect technical and driver-experience solution. What is its only drawback? Cost. And so, it was not adopted as the solution to the problem—a cost-driven error.


Ultimately, the worst solution possible was adopted because of cost-saving. It might be argued that it was a quicker solution, but that was not the main driving factor. While the initial design concept had proposed ‘stopping spaces’ at reasonable intervals, the finally-adopted design did not. It had dangerously spaced intervals of 1.5 miles. Any statements about how this spacing will be reduced in the future do not detract from the lengths of motorway already altered terribly and dangerously in this way.


Therefore, it must be recognised that what the government is calling ‘smart’ motorways is, actually, the antithesis of smart. They are, as engineering structures, extremely dumb, with poor, ineffective, time-lagged signs and highly dangerous and frightening emergency stopping points.


I write my contribution partially based upon my professional experience, but most strongly and most importantly to me, I write as a private citizen and individual who is now really frightened at the prospect of having a breakdown on a motorway which has become a potentially life-threatening experience for all of us who are left with little alternative choice but to take our lives in our hands when we journey today. 


There was a time when I used to look forward to driving on our motorways as a peaceful, civilised and rewarding experience. I would drop onto a motorway and drive along quietly in a well-ordered fashion, knowing that, in the event of a breakdown, there was a hard shoulder continuously present for me to pull in to.


During the course of my driving career, I have experienced a tyre blow-out on a motorway twice. Very luckily for me, on both occasions, I was driving on a motorway with a continuous hard shoulder. When a tyre blows out explosively, the driver is shocked and has no time or ability to do anything other than freeze in fear and let the vehicle coast to the side and stop.


When such an event occurs, it is a terrifying experience. Terrifying, even when there is an entire non-trafficked safety lane in which to stop. Being stationary as heavy vehicles pass close by at sixty miles an hour is frightening in the extreme because of the noise, the air buffeting, and the sure knowledge that one could be struck by a high-speed ten-tonne vehicle at any moment.


We are told, in the event of stopping in a safety lane, to leave the vehicle. If one is in a vehicle where the driver can escape through a nearside door, then, providing that one is not too close to the crash barrier, that might be a relatively safe exit procedure. But, imagine trying to open your offside door as huge vehicles roar by at sixty miles per hour and the suction tries to rip the car door open. Now, in many cases, as is the case of my car, it is near-impossible to get across the seat space to exit the vehicle using the nearside door. Therefore, when stopped on a motorway safety lane, I have to try to wriggle out of the offside door, preventing the door from being ripped open by the passing lorries’ air suction.


Now, let us take ourselves on from the relative safety of a non-trafficked safety lane to imagine what would be the situation when our tyre bursts in a left-hand-side fully-trafficked sixty-miles-per-hour running lane. The odds that it will happen just within the perfect coasting distance to a lay-by safety bay are exceedingly small. And so, we are forced to stop in a traffic running lane! Imagine the chaos and the terror experienced by every occupant of the vehicle. Imagine the terror felt by the driver of a heavy goods vehicle travelling at sixty miles per hour immediately behind a car or motorhome that suddenly veers about with a flailing tyre and stops right there in front of him or her. Imagine!


It is not difficult to picture the ensuing mayhem and the almost automatic loss of life and suffering that follows.


Any politically motivated statement given to the public that they would always be able to drive on to a conveniently located lay-by is fictitious nonsense. It is, to be brutally frank, a lie.


On both occasions when I have experienced a tyre burst, it has taken me (as recorded in my contemporaneous photographs) about one hundred metres to stop safely on the hard shoulder safety lane. Consider that if lay-bys are one mile apart, then there will be sixteen of those stopping distances between stopping points. Put simply, the odds of stopping within coasting distance of a lay-by are sixteen-to-one against you.


Those are the real odds—16:1—that you will be forced to stop and remain stationary in a lane of heavy vehicles moving at about sixty miles an hour as they unsuccessfully brake and swerve to try to avoid you!


In reality, the chances that you can get out of your vehicle before you and your family are killed are very small. High odds against you indeed.


Under those circumstances, any government forcing its citizens to use such a system are little short of committing manslaughter. And the governments of this country must hold themselves responsible for the past deaths on our smart motorways and for all future fatalities and injuries caused by this terrible design failure being forced upon engineers.


My wife, also an advanced motorist, joins me in expressing these serious concerns.


Please ensure that abandoning the hard shoulder be scrapped as soon as possible. Better to have congested motorways than to kill the public when it is avoidable.



April 2021