Written evidence submitted by the Baker family (RSM0108)

 

Statement and Summary

 

Introduction and Background

 

We are most grateful for the opportunity to submit evidence to your Committee’s Inquiry into the Roll-Out and Safety of “Smart” Motorways.

 

Prior to the Coronavirus crisis, our family had several decades of daily experience of motorway driving, on many different kinds of motorways.   These ranged from the 1960s’ M2 (2 lanes) to the 3- and 4-lane M20 and M25, the latter both with and without hard shoulders.   During these years, we have witnessed many occasions of congestion, as well as the aftermath of numerous incidents and accidents on motorways.

 

We have therefore taken considerable interest in proposals for, and the implementation of “Smart” Motorways over several years.

 

Our concerns are set out in detail in the Appendices, but can be summarised as follows.

 

Lack of genuine public consultation on proposals for the M25

 

When we first heard of the proposal, in 2012, to convert the section of M25 in Kent and Surrey between Junctions 5 and 7 to All-Lane Running (ALR), through a consultation held by the then Highways Agency, we were alarmed because of the safety implications of removing the hard shoulder permanently and totally.

 

Our safety fears increased when we read the Agency’s consultation document, because it appeared to pay scant attention to safety, and not to have considered and addressed even the most obvious risks.  It read to us as if these risks were being either negligently or deliberately downplayed and/or glossed over.

 

Therefore, we wrote a detailed response to the Agency, and would like your Committee to have a copy, which is enclosed at Appendix 1.

 

You will see that we set out how the consultation document did not address road safety, nor the impact of ALR on the emergency services.  Nor did the consultation document refer to relevant evidence, since it drew on evidence from previous peak-hours-only ALR schemes, and failed to appreciate that the circumstances of those previous schemes were fundamentally different from permanent ALR, and thus the evidence not transferable.  For example, serious reductions in both emergency refuge provision and signage were proposed, with no justification whatsoever stated.

 

We never received any acknowledgment or response to our letter to the Agency, nor were we ever informed of any results of the consultation.  Instead, within a few weeks, work started on the M25 to implement the proposals, with no discernible changes whatsoever.  We felt that the consultation had been neither genuine nor effective, and that decisions had been taken and contracts for works let without taking account of the public’s views or concerns.

 

Implementation of the proposals on the M25

 

When the ALR scheme opened, we found all the fears we had expressed about inadequate infrastructure, on page 4 of our letter at Appendix 1 (page 8 of this document) [not published], to be valid.   In particular:-

 

(a)  Information to drivers:   On entering the ALR section of the M25, there is no information to drivers as to how to behave in the event of a problem with their vehicles – let alone multilingual information.   Information is required in several languages other than English, because the M25 is a main route for thousands of HGVs and other vehicles every day entering the UK with foreign drivers.

 

(b) Inadequate variable driver information signs:   These are not easily visible, being over the inside lane only, where they are frequently obscured from view from drivers in the outside lanes by HGVs, large vans and coaches.   They are also far too small for useful text to be displayed – only minimal text (e.g. one word) and incomprehensible symbols will fit onto them.

 

In our view, only overhead gantry signs can give effective instructions or information to drivers in different lanes about how they should behave in each lane.   We have witnessed that even a red cross directly over a lane does not succeed in preventing all traffic from using that lane beyond the sign – and the inside-lane signs alone are highly ineffective.

 

(c)  Emergency refuge areas:   There are far too few refuge areas, and those that exist are far too small and are “full” once an HGV is occupying them.   There is also far too little signage to them in the lengths of motorway between them.

 

As a result, we regard the risk of collision with a stationary vehicle in the inside running lane of “Smart” Motorways to be unacceptably great – and even more so in poor visibility or at night.  

Therefore, most of us always avoid driving in the inside lane on ALR motorways, aware that the risk of collision with a stationary or slow-moving vehicle is highest of all in the inside lane, and also preferring the flexibility to try to move to the side in either direction in the event of suddenly encountering a stationary vehicle in the lane of travel.

Of course, this undermines the purpose of allowing traffic to use the inside lane (former hard shoulder) at all, but we feel that the increased risk to safety is compelling.

 

Lack of genuine public consultation on proposals for the M20

 

When we heard of proposals in 2017 to convert the section between Junctions 3 and 5 of the M20, which we know well, to a “Smart” Motorway, one of us attended a public consultation event at Aylesford to raise our concerns.

 

These concerns were summarised in the letter that we subsequently wrote to your Committee, under a previous Chairman, which is attached at Appendix 2 [not published].

 

As explained in that letter, we were especially concerned that the M20 scheme was proposed to operate at an even lower level of safety infrastructure than previous schemes.   This of itself meant that data gathered from previous schemes, which Highways England relied on, was not genuinely transferable to demonstrate the safety of the proposals for the M20, but this fact was glossed over and pretended by Highways England staff at the public consultation event to be of no consequence.

 

In particular:-

 

(a)  The total absence of stopped vehicle detection systems:

In our view, this completely negates the key supposed advantage of “Smart” Motorways, in that traffic can supposedly be managed automatically in response to incidents on the carriageway through the use of these signs.

 

It has always been possible manually to close lanes using signage.   The “technological advance” to a “Smart” Motorway was, as we understood it, because technology was to be deployed, at great public expense, to detect incidents automatically and set signage accordingly.   In this respect, it was supposed to be superior to traffic operators awaiting news of incidents from the travelling public before being able to respond.

Again, in fact many motorways, including the M20 and M25, had acquired networks of CCTV cameras to assist in this process over the years, quite unconnected to “Smart” Motorways.

In other words, the “Smart” technology after which such motorways are named, either existed anyway (CCTV) or has not been installed (automatic stopped vehicle detection).   This motorway, therefore, cannot even be called “Smart”.

 

(b) The increased spacing of emergency refuge areas:

In one case on the M20 scheme, the spacing was increased above the normal, due to claimed space difficulties at the normal spacing, and reliance was placed on an exit slip-road to a non-motorway road as an alternative to a refuge area!   Yet no consideration was given to adding an extra refuge area to bridge the gap.

 

Once again, we were never informed of any results of the consultation.  Instead, within a few weeks, work started on the M20 to implement the proposals, again with no discernible changes whatsoever.  We felt, again, that the consultation had not been genuine, and that the public’s views and concerns were not genuinely considered.

 

Our main impression, throughout, has been of a determination by Highways England to push through its proposals, whatever the public and respected organisations such as motorists’ groups and the emergency services might say.

 

Implementation of the proposals on the M20

 

While the works were under way to construct the “Smart” Motorway on the M20, the inherent dangers of the concept were revealed by the increasing number of deaths and Coroners’ Inquests in relation to “Smart” Motorways.   In response, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps MP announced that it would not be opened until the review (published March 2020) had been carried out.

 

However, despite the findings of the review, the M20 “Smart” Motorway was opened shortly afterwards, with no changes made or programmed.   It therefore remains in operation, with fewer safeguards than previous ALR schemes as summarised above.

 

Request to the Committee

 

We would ask you kindly to recommend, in the interests of public safety:-

 

  1. an immediate moratorium on current and future “Smart” Motorway proposals,
  2. more and larger refuge areas, and better signage, be added to all “Smart” Motorways, without delay,
  3. until the provision of stopped vehicle detection systems, and their proven operational use (including adequate staff and maintenance support), the inside lanes of “Smart” Motorways without the extra and larger refuge areas and better signage be removed from use as a running lane and reinstated as a hard shoulder.

 

In future, when there are serious congestion problems and road widening is not possible, we would ask that any ALR schemes should be of the peak-hours-only type, in order to eliminate the additional risks which ALR creates in lighter, higher-speed traffic conditions, while still producing all the benefits of reduced delays, congestion and pollution, and increased journey time reliability.

 

 

April 2021.