Smart motorways are death traps and their £6billion rollout should be halted immediately, a police leader said yesterday.
John Apter, chairman of the Police Federation, said the roads were dangerous, putting both drivers and police at risk. Highways England insists smart motorways – where the hard shoulder is used as a regular lane – are safe because they have refuges for broken-down vehicles.
But Mr Apter, who represents rank-and-file officers, insisted: ‘They are a death trap. The country, police and we have been completely misled about the technology.
‘A poorer system has been introduced and continues to be rolled out despite the clear dangers that they present. Smart motorways are inherently dangerous.’
Ministers were already under pressure after a bombshell report warned of ‘a shocking degree of carelessness’ over the roads. MPs on the all-party parliamentary group for roadside rescue and recovery described smart motorways as a ‘gross public policy failure’.
Thirty-eight people have been killed on smart motorways in just five years, according to the BBC’s Panorama.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is expected to face questions over the issue in the Commons tomorrow. He said yesterday: ‘If we can’t have smart motorways that are as safe, or better still safer than conventional motorways, then we should not have them at all.’
Solicitors are understood to be preparing a number of legal cases against Highways England from families of victims and drivers who have suffered life-changing injuries in smart motorway accidents.
Tory former roads minister Sir Mike Penning authorised the expansion of the programme in 2010 after a successful test on the M42 near Birmingham. In the pilot there were safe stopping points for motorists, called emergency safety refuges, on average every 600 metres. But when the scheme was rolled out some refuges were 2.5 miles apart.
Mr Apter, who was a traffic officer, said: ‘We were told that the technology would be so advanced that if there was an obstruction the system would automatically pick it up, help would be dispatched and the gantry would flash up a warning closing the affected lane.
‘We were presented with a fait accompli based on the M42 model but we have been completely misled and a poorer system has been introduced.
‘What we now learn is it takes an average of 17 minutes for an obstruction to be spotted and another 17 minutes for help to arrive.
‘The public don’t even call 999 when they break down as they assume they are being watched by some magic eye in the sky. The Government should order an immediate suspension of any smart motorway conversion until this review is completed.’
Anthony Bangham, who speaks for the National Police Chiefs Council on roads policing, said: ‘It is the right time now to be asking the questions as to the issues around safety on our smart motorways.’
MPs say a litany of failures have put motorists at risk because they leave drivers with no choice but to stop in the path of fast-moving traffic. They want to halt the construction of smart motorways for at least three years to collect proper safety data.
They also want to more than double the number of emergency refuge lay-bys.
Labour MP Lilian Greenwood, a former chairman of the Commons transport committee, said: ‘Highways England have been unable to answer key questions. It’s clear there are very serious safety concerns about removing the hard shoulder from motorways.’
Richard Burnett, of the Road Haulage Association, said: ‘They need bigger and more frequent refuge areas and better signage to ensure drivers understand when hard shoulders are closed to active running. Lives have been lost and that is totally unacceptable.’
Shaun Coole, of the Road Rescue Recovery Association, said: ‘I guarantee you – I’d put my house on it – that we’re going to have another M25 catastrophe soon.’
Sir Mike, who is now chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on road freight and logistics, said: ‘They are endangering people’s lives. People are being killed and seriously injured on these roads, and it should never have happened.’
A Highways England spokesman said: ‘Any death on our roads is one too many, and our deepest sympathies remain with the family and friends of those who lost their lives.
‘The Transport Secretary has asked the Department for Transport to carry out, at pace, an evidence stocktake to gather the facts about smart motorway safety.
‘We are committed to safety and are supporting the department in its work on this.’