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Transport minister hoodwinked over smart motorway roll-out

28 Jan A former transport minister has said that he was effectively misled by the Highways Agency when he gave approval for the smart motorway network to be rolled out.

Sir Mike Penning, transport minister 2010-2012, told BBC Panorama this week that he agreed to expand the smart motorway network only on the basis of information given to him by the Highways Agency (now Highways England), namely that they were safe. He has since learned that they are not safe for any who breaks down.

Panorama this week explored how road safety had been compromised on motorways where the hard shoulder had been converted to all-lane running. It reported that 38 people had been killed on smart motorway in the last five years, often after being trapped in a broken down vehicle in the middle of live speeding traffic, with no safe refuge to pull onto.

Sir Mike Penning said he approved the roll-out on the basis that refuge areas would be 600 metres apart, as they were on the M42 pilot scheme, on which all the evidence was based. However the Highways Agency, then under the leadership of Graham Dalton (who is now chief executive of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation), decided to move the refuge areas further apart – up to 2.5 miles apart.

The former minister agreed with the interviewer that it was a disgrace that what was delivered was not what he had signed off on. “It should never have happened,” he said.

The thinking was that losing the hard shoulder was a lesser price than buying land to widen the carriageway. In addition, installing technology that detected traffic conditions and flashed up temporary speed restrictions specific to those conditions would smooth traffic flower and reduce congestion. Both arguments remain valid. However, safety has now finally been admitted as a factor in the debate. “Safety is our priority,” Highways England tweeted as the programme finished

The Department of Transport has now ordered a ‘stock take’ of smart motorways and is certain to demand Highways England find a way to build more refuge areas.

Current transport secretary Grant Shapps said: “I think two-and-a-half miles is much too far apart. People need to be passing these every 60 seconds, driving at a normal speed.”

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AA president Edmund King was blunter. “They are dangerous – not fit for purpose” – which is what he has been saying for years.

What makes the matter worse is it seems that the technology on which they are based – radars and detectors to identify vehicles in distress – is not all it’s cracked up to be.

John Apter of the Police Federation told the programme: “We were told that the technology behind smart motorways will be so advanced, it would detect obstructions, it would detect problems on the motorway instantaneously. We know that that technology is not there.”

It takes an average of 34 minutes for emergency or rescue services to reach a stranded vehicle, it was disclosed. “You’re a sitting duck for more than half an hour,” Edmund King said.

A Freedom of Information request submitted by Panorama about one stretch of the M25 found that near-misses had increased 20-fold since the motorway was made ‘smart’ – from 72 in the five years before the hard shoulders were removed to 1,485 in the subsequent five years as smart motorway.

Panorama: Britain's Killer Motorways? is available on BBC iPlayer

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