To the Secretary of State for Transport,
I write to you following a period of reflection – one of consideration where I have contemplated not only the ideas/findings I am about to put forward but also the emotive element where we, as a family, have not heard a single word from you. We have not received a telephone call, an email, nor acknowledgment from a member of your office. Nothing.
By way of introduction, my name is Niaz Shazad and I am the son of Nargis Begum – a caring mother, a lady of stature and a pillar in the community. For you, she is likely to be just another statistic. One of the 38 who have come and gone as result of the rollout of “smart” motorways.
Below is a catchphrase, a motto which keeps getting bandied about, for psychological reasoning I assume more than anything else – in the hope that if it is repeated enough, it is likely to stick and be believed. Really, it is Orwellian double speak based on a sort of mathematical sophism.
“…smart motorways are as safe as, or safer than, the conventional motorways they replaced.”
The first priority of any road should be safety – I would like to think we both agree on this. So why do we have a number of high-profile individuals raising concerns? Edmund King (the president of the AA) has voiced worries. Sir Mike Penning (former transport minister) has referred to them as a scandal and says he was “hoodwinked”. Dr Billings (SY Police and Crime Commissioner) has labelled them as “inherently dangerous”. John Apter (Police Federation) has referred to them as “death traps”. Eight out of 10 drivers think that the removal of hard shoulders on smart motorways has made motorways more dangerous than four years ago, according to an AA Populus poll of 20,845 drivers.
I could continue, but I assume the point is made.
So, with the stocktake you and your team undertook after a year of fact-finding, we are told the above. “As safe as, or safer than…” is based on a combination of metrics which are largely home-made, i.e. Highways England innovations, or just using data to communicate and relay the above strapline.
But let us take the same data and view it from the other side.
Let us take for example the FWI – the fatal and weighted injuries metric – in which you give 10 times weighting to fatalities over serious collisions, and subsequently over slight collisions etc.
Fatalities aside, I think we could accept collisions, regardless of severity, have taken place in all three scenarios. So let me highlight the below, taken from your stocktake:
“The stocktake found that fatal casualty rates on ALR (0.11 per hmvm) are lower than on conventional motorways (0.16 per hmvm). Slight casualty rates on ALR roads are higher (11 per hmvm) compared to conventional motorways (10 per hmvm), and serious casualty rates on ALR (1.3 per hmvm) are also higher than conventional motorways (1.1 per hmvm).”
Taken together the “All Lane Running” (ALR) and Dynamic Hard Shoulder (DHS) schemes present a higher percentage of total casualties than the percentage of the traffic on the motorway network, in every single year of the study.
In 2015 they represented 10.4 per cent of total casualties on SRN motorways and carried 7.6 per cent of the traffic. In 2016 it was 11.7 per cent of casualties and 9.6 per cent of traffic. In 2017 it was 13.7 per cent for 11.7 per cent of the traffic, and in 2018 it was 14.8 per cent for 13.8 per cent of the traffic.
Six out of the nine schemes show an increase in the fatal and serious casualty rate, which by my reckoning also seems significant – again I am quoting directly from the stocktake. Points to note in addition here:
- Slight casualties are generally “under-reported”, which means we could well be working with numbers that do not even paint the true reflection of what the situation is.
- Someone who has survived 30 days as a result of their injuries but then passes is classed as a serious casualty, not a fatality. Could be argued but again, just a subjective metric, just like the weightings.
To add, only this weekend The Times have reported figures from the DfT which show fatalities have actually risen, and saw 14 fatalities in 2019, up from 11 in 2018 and five in 2017. That is quite a growth rate. But why was this not reported in the DfT Annual Report?
The above excerpts, by my understanding, do not quite tally up with “as safe as or safer than conventional motorways”.
Before v After
As I am sure you recall from the Panorama programme aired in January 2020, which you appeared on, in the five years before the M25 Smart Motorways were introduced, there were 72 near misses. In the five years after, 1,485 near misses – a 20-fold rise. Forgive me, for although your official statistics may not have accounted for these, in my eyes this is in no way safer. How can a road, any road, where near misses have gone up 20-fold be classified “as safe as, or safer than conventional motorways”?
All it takes is, God forbid, a few of these near misses to turn into smashes, deaths, fatalities – is that when they get taken into account? Is that when they can be plugged into someone’s spreadsheet at HQ and impact a metric?
Before the rollout, the Police Federation was told the technology would be so advanced that it would detect problems and obstructions instantaneously.
However, you and I are both fully aware there are grave limitations to SVD technology, as it cannot identify stopped vehicles in high volumes of traffic due to an unmanageable number of false positives, and when this has been pointed out, Highways England has suggested a “MIDAS” (loop) system could be used, but also admitted this was an inadequate proxy.
So we have gone from revolutionary technology to tech which, according to Highways England themselves, is inadequate. Compounded by the fact which came out from my mother’s PIR that there are only eight individuals looking at over 450 cameras at any given time – let’s compound this for second and hypothetically conjure up a snow blizzard just like last week – what are you expecting these eight individuals to see?
Furthermore, as of the start of 2020, this tech only existed on the M25 – no other part of the network had the technology. In the stocktake, it was said “a radar-based system which spots stationary vehicles will be installed across the entire smart motorway network within 36 months”.
You have then come out and stated this will be sooner still, and retro-fitted by the end of 2022 across the network. But my question to you is why were these stretches of motorways rolled out in the first place, shelving the inadequacy of the system for a second, without the SVD when the initial M42 trial was signed off by Mr Penning on the basis of having said SVD?
Additionally, you make the assertion in the stocktake of the risk of collisions being reduced due to technology being installed and enforced via cameras – but that is quite disingenuous when vast swathes of the network do not even have some or all of the tech you refer to.
So taking just the few points above to note, are smart motorways really as safe, or safer than conventional motorways?
As per official advice, to stay in your car and keep your seatbelt on, unless in the inside lane, then try and get out and over the barrier, which you were keen to stress on the Panorama documentary and I quote: “It’s not my advice, it’s the advice of the Police and the Highways Agency.” (sic).
May I ask, what would, therefore, the Transport Secretary, who has the power to initiate change, advise? And would the outcome have been any different to what occurred on that night my mother died?
You have previously been in a motoring accident which left you in a coma for a week. A spectacular crash as you described, and who was there for you when you woke – “When I came round my mum was there in the hospital…” A comfort, Grant, which you have deprived me of.
“Any death on our roads is one too many…”
Aside from functioning as another captivating strapline, what purpose does the above statement serve? Because, per my humble opinion, if there was depth in that statement, change would have taken place and continue to be taking place, and fast.
You have previously been quoted as saying it would be too costly to upgrade the network to four lanes and a hard shoulder. So let me pose the following scenario to you. You are driving along one of these smart motorways with your wife and children alongside you and your tyre bursts. Bang. You suddenly realise your not going to make it to the next Emergency Refuge Area. You are stranded on a live lane. Cars whizz up past you and then an 18-wheeler blares its horn as he misses you by inches. You are thinking, whilst panicked, ‘I need to get everyone out of this vehicle’ but then realise your not on the inside lane. You are in Lane 2 – and the official advice is to keep your belt on and remain in your car.
To compound matters, it starts to rain. It’s already dark, and now rain is further reducing visibility. You start to look around anxiously, for cameras, the tech overhead which is supposed to be seeing you instantaneously – but then remember this is a stretch which you approved without the SVD being installed. You find your phone and call desperately for help. Their words of solace? “We will be with you in 17 minutes”. Your heart sinks. Seventeen minutes you are going to be sat there, praying, hoping that someone, somewhere has activated signs behind you, without knowing for sure. Your children’s lives, along with your own, at the mercy of drivers on the road at that time.
And there is absolutely nothing you can do about it.
So, let me ask you – if, God forbid, you found yourself in a situation similar to the above – would you still believe it too costly to make right what is quite clearly wrong? Would you still be quoting straplines if you happened to lose your wife or one of the children?
I have some further questions, which I would appreciate you taking some valuable time to answer, in addition to the above questions posed:
- Why were ERAs reduced from 600m from the trial on the M42 at the outset to in some places 2.5 miles?
- Do we now know of distances between all ERAs? In the stocktake, we are told the maximum spacing will be one mile. You also said to Panorama 2.5 miles is too far a distance, so I would like clarity on whether changes have been made since, and as promised, and if not when is this due to take place by.
- If an ERA is full, and a failing car just about makes it to the ERA, then what happens?
- I have disabled friend, and therefore would like to understand if an individual is unable to exit a vehicle due to maybe a physical disability, what happens?
- The £5 million committed to public information and awareness – can we see evidence of what this has been spent on, and where this has been spent thus far? Also, why on the Government website, has the advice of how to drive on a SM been withdrawn?
- Why, when you have acknowledged and are retrospectively fitting SVD across the network, are new schemes still being given the go ahead without said technology?
- Why were the SMs rolled out without SVD technology in some routes at all, and in others, tech which wasn’t fully functional?
- An argument against rolling back smart motorways is that many people’s homes would be destroyed and hundreds of acres of green space would have to be built on – but isn’t that exactly what is happening with HS2? Why the disconnect in thinking?
The facts as I see them, Grant, are pretty clear – you have a choice to make. Now, you have the opportunity and the power to make a real change in people’s lives. It is no use passing the buck and saying I would not have done things this way, and that was not my advice – actions speak louder than words.
You are the Secretary of State for Transport, and you have the authority to bring about change.
By doing nothing, I, and the growing numbers of those who have lost loved ones on smart motorways, are putting you on notice that you are the man responsible when these failings emerged.
By choosing merely to take soft measures, history will remember you as a failure. You will leave no legacy and you will have to live with being known as the minister who did nothing.