Grant Shapps has ruled out scrapping so-called ‘smart motorways’, while admitting their name was a ‘misnomer’.
The Transport Secretary said yesterday that he ‘wouldn’t have gone about it like this’ were he in charge when they were launched and said mistakes were made in their roll-out which initially made them less safe.
But he told MPs reversing them would mean acquiring land the equivalent of 700 Wembley stadium-sized football pitches, destroying swathes of the Green Belt and buying up people’s homes.
Grant Shapps has ruled out scrapping so-called ‘smart motorways’, while admitting their name was a ‘misnomer’
He also insisted that, following a safety drive since becoming Transport Secretary in summer 2019, the roads were now much safer and that death rates on conventional motorways are higher.
He was quizzed about the controversial roads, which have no hard shoulder because it has been turned into a fourth live lane of traffic, by the Commons’ transport committee of MPs.
Asked whether smart motorways are here to stay, he said: ‘A lot of people say just undo it, and I’ve looked at that and it would require the equivalent of land of 700 Wembley stadium-sized football pitches to somehow undo all of this and we’d have to buy people’s homes, destroy acres of Green Belt – I don’t see that there’s a route through to simply undo it. We’ve got to make what’s there safe.’
He pledged that vital radar technology which can detect marooned cars within 20 seconds would be rolled out on the entire network by the end of next year. The target has been brought forward from 2023, as revealed by the Mail last month.
Mr Shapps said: ‘I don’t want to carry on with what we’ve seen of smart motorways, the system I’ve inherited…I wouldn’t have gone about it like this, and I don’t approve of the fact that emergency areas were being spaced way too far apart.
‘I’ve said they have to be ideally three-quarters of a mile apart, no more than a mile, and I’ve ordered Highways England to get on with it.’
Instead of a hard shoulder smart motorways have emergency refuge areas which drivers can pull into. However, they are spaced up to 1.5 miles apart, meaning drivers can become stuck in live traffic.
Mr Shapps went on: ‘I’m not sure it would be desirable [to reverse them] given the death rates are higher on conventional motorways, so you would be essentially doing so going against the evidence, which would be the wrong thing to do.
‘I think the right thing to do is put all these additional [safety] measures in place…why these things were ever called smart motorways when they seem to be anything but, I think was a misnomer.
He also insisted that, following a safety drive since becoming Transport Secretary in summer 2019, the roads were now much safer and that death rates on conventional motorways are higher. Four lane Smart motorway above
‘So I’m not going to build things called smart motorways, but I want all of our motorways to be a lot better, a lot safer.’
Smart motorways in their current format were signed off by then Tory transport minister Sir Mike Penning at the beginning of last decade.
However, he has always maintained he was misled about the risks of turning the hard shoulder into a live lane of traffic.
He also claims they don’t resemble the designs he signed off and that Highways England has ‘casually ignored the commitments’ made to MPs on safety.
A coroner last month warned smart motorways present an ‘ongoing risk of future deaths’ after two drivers were killed on the M1 in Yorkshire.
The coroner said the lack of a hard shoulder contributed to the deaths of Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, in 2019.
But Mr Shapps said he believed the coroner was not aware of a review he ordered in 2019 which reported back in March last year and has led to more safety measures being installed.
He said data shows there is a ‘mixed picture’ on smart motorways, with higher injury rates than on conventional motorways but fewer fatalities.
He will update MPs next month on the progress made since last year’s ‘stocktake’. Following the review, new stretches of smart motorway will have refuge areas spaced three-quarters of a mile apart.
However, motoring groups want hundreds of miles of existing smart motorway to be retro-fitted so they are also more closely spaced.
It came as Labour stepped-up its attack on smart motorways, calling for them to be suspended.
In a letter to Mr Shapps, seen by the Mail, shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon said action is needed to prevent further avoidable deaths.
He said he wants them suspended until Mr Shapps has reported back to MPs next month.
The letter, sent on Tuesday, said: ‘How many more people must die before you will make a decision and immediately suspend the use of the hard shoulder for driving traffic? Enough is enough.’
Smart motorways in their current format were signed off by then Tory transport minister Sir Mike Penning at the beginning of last decade
A Department for Transport spokesman dismissed the letter, saying: ‘The letter shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the work undertaken so far on smart motorways.
‘As soon as the Transport Secretary took office he recognised the concerns around smart motorway safety and commissioned an urgent stocktake of the evidence, which we published a year ago – along with a £500 million, 18-point, action plan to make them safer still.’
Edmund King, president of the AA, said: ‘To give the Transport Secretary some credit, he is the only minister to date who has taken the safety of ‘smart’ motorways seriously and has pushed Highways England to make them safer.
‘In the meantime we hope he wastes no time in making these motorways the safest they can possibly be, by retrofitting more emergency laybys.’
Highways England is facing possible manslaughter charges over the death of Nargis Begum, 62, who died on the M1 smart motorway in Yorkshire in 2018.
Around 44 people have died on smart motorways over the last five years or so.