Written evidence submitted by Transport Focus (RSM0094)
Transport Focus is the independent, statutory consumer watchdog protecting and promoting the interests of transport users. Working with transport providers and Governments across England, Scotland and Wales – and in close partnership with our colleagues at London TravelWatch – we ensure that the user voice is heard.
Transport Focus has carried out five pieces of research relevant to your Inquiry.
Two about smart motorways themselves:
And three about the roadworks required to build the smart motorway:
The most relevant, All-lane running smart motorways: the driver’s view, includes Transport Focus recommendations to Highways England in December 2020 and is attached as Annex A. Full research findings are also available on our website.
In this submission we provide comments in response to the Committee’s areas of interest where our research provides relevant insight.
3. Committee’s area of interest: “the benefits of smart motorways, for instance to reduce congestion on busy sections of motorway, and how necessary they are”
Journey reliability is important to road users. Our Strategic Roads User Survey (SRUS) shows that the three factors with greatest influence on whether a driver is satisfied with their journey are:
In our 2020 all-lane running research we found that, notwithstanding concerns referred to later in this submission, drivers understood and broadly supported the purpose of all-lane running smart motorways – in short, to increase capacity, and therefore journey reliability, at lower cost than conventional road widening. For some this was about money – it is their money as taxpayers; for others it was about ‘land take’ – either because there is physically no space to widen the road or because it would be environmentally undesirable to do so.
Some drivers, particularly those making frequent use of Highways England’s roads such as lorry drivers, had personal experience of the practical benefits of a smart motorway in terms of smoother journeys and less congestion. In our 2017 research drivers talked about being slowed down unnecessarily; in 2020 we found greater understanding that being slowed down and not seeing a problem probably means the smart motorway is smoothing the traffic flow as intended.
4. Committee’s areas of interest: “the safety of smart motorways, the adequacy of safety measures in place and how safety could be improved; and public confidence in using smart motorways and how this could be improved”
An overarching initial observation. Looking from the perspective of those using Highways England’s motorways, the original safety objective for any all-lane running scheme feels unambitious. Was being “at least as safe as the conventional motorway it replaces” ever right, given the substantial investment involved? If the ambition had been to be safer than the roads they replaced, would stopped vehicle detection, suitable spacing of emergency refuge areas and automatic enforcement of the red X have been integral to all-lane running from the outset?
Transport Focus is not a safety expert; we can however comment about what road users think about safety, drawing on our research.
The research shows that for most drivers, and it is the same for bus and rail passengers, safety is not top of mind when making a journey. Unprompted, few have safety concerns about all-lane running smart motorways. However, there are genuine concerns about what would happen in the event of breaking down on an all-lane running section. Although breakdowns are rare with modern vehicles, drivers know that it could happen; they know that if it does the danger of being hit from behind by an inattentive driver are real and potentially very serious. Drivers understand that this could happen on a conventional motorway, but they feel it is more likely to happen on a motorway with no hard shoulder.
In summary, many drivers intuitively believe, even if they feel safe on an all-lane running smart motorway and irrespective of official data showing them to be safe, that they would be even safer if there was a hard shoulder. That said, those taking part in our research welcomed the additional measures announced in the Secretary of State’s evidence stocktake and action plan. In particular, the automatic enforcement of red X and measures to improve the spacing and visibility of emergency refuge areas.
What needs to be improved? Drivers’ safety concerns about all-lane running motorways are focused almost exclusively on what happens if you break down. It is important that safety improvements address those concerns. We believe there are four key points:
We see these as important metrics for the long term, but they are particularly needed between now and full implementation of stopped vehicle detection technology.
5. Committee’s area of interest: “the effectiveness of Highways England’s delivery of the smart motorways programme, the impact of construction works, and the costs of implementation”
In some ways, the road user impact of smart motorway construction is ‘just another set of roadworks’. With any roadworks road users recognise that there will be some ‘pain’, but they want Highways England to minimise the impact to the greatest extent possible and provide good advance information, in particular when roads are closed completely.
However, smart motorway construction has tended to involve roadworks going on for miles and miles, on the busiest parts of the network, usually with narrow lanes and a speed restriction. Our research shows that road users do not like that approach, preferring to see the work done in sections instead. We specifically asked drivers if they would prefer one continuous 12-mile section of roadworks taking 12 months to complete, or three phases with four miles of roadworks at any one time and taking 18 months to complete the work. Overwhelmingly, they opted for the latter. They accept that it would mean taking longer to get the whole job done. Drivers believe shorter stretches keeps traffic moving better, reduces concentration fatigue and reduces the chances of there being accidents/vehicle breakdowns in the roadworks, often considered to be a cause of further delay.
Transport Focus has measured satisfaction with journeys on the M4 between Reading and Heathrow Airport, currently affected by roadworks over many miles for smart motorway construction. In May 2019 we found 58 per cent of drivers were satisfied with their most recent journey; in December 2020 that had fallen to 46 per cent. By comparison, across the whole Highways England network for the 12 months to March 2020 satisfaction with journeys that involved passing through roadworks was 67 per cent.
It may be that the nature of constructing a smart motorway, in particular installing all the roadside technology, means that roadworks over miles and miles with narrow lanes and speed restrictions is unavoidable. However, we believe Highways England should constantly challenge itself to find ways to achieve the same result with less impact on existing users of the road concerned.
Transport Focus research – all-lane running smart motorways: the driver’s view