Govt under pressure over smart motorway reports

Chris Ames

A senior MP has pressed ministers over unpublished evaluations of smart motorways schemes covering stretches of the M1 that have seen high profile fatalities in live lanes.

Highways England has not published the post opening project evaluation (POPE) reports, despite a Freedom of Information (FOI) request from Highways.

The Government-owned company said the reports were ‘being analytically assured to check analysis is accurate and robust’.

It added that it 'planned' to publish the reports next month but did not commit to doing this, stating it ‘must allow time for due internal consideration of the information prior to its public release’.

This has raised concerns that publication may be delayed until the Transport Select Committee has completed its inquiry into smart motorways. Committee chair Huw Merriman used a parliamentary question to ask about the reports.

In response, transport minister Rachel Maclean only said that the reports are ‘expected to be published by Summer 2021’.

The issue was raised by AA president Edmund King at a committee hearing on Wednesday. Mr King told MPs: ‘We need all those evaluation reports.’

Mr King also called for Highways England to publish a 2018 evaluation of its radar-based system for detecting stopped vehicles on smart motorways. The government-owned company has refused to release the full report in response to a separate FOI request from Highways.

The POPE reports cover three all lane running sections of the M1. One is a five-year, after opening, evaluation of the scheme between junctions 10 and 13, while the other is said to be a joint one-year after opening report, concerning stretches of the same motorway between junctions 28 and 31 and between junctions 32 and 35a.

These sections of motorway have seen some of the highest profile fatalities on the smart motorway network.

In September 2018 Nargis Begum died after a car being driven by her husband broke down between junctions 30 and 31, despite having exited the vehicle. In February of this year, a coroner referred the case to the Crown Prosecution service for possible criminal charges against Highways England.

In March 2019 Derek Jacobs was killed after an apparent breakdown on the same stretch.

In June 2019, Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu died after a lorry crashed into their vehicles when they had stopped due to a minor collision near Junction 34. South Yorkshire Police has said it is investigating the case, along with that of Nargis Begum.

In December 2019, Zahid Ahmed died after another crash on the M1 at junction 11a. The BBC report that assistant coroner Tom Stoate said it was 'not clear where the vehicle could have pulled to a halt in a safe place'.

Highways England has significantly delayed publishing earlier POPE reports, with a batch of existing reports released for last year’s smart motorway stocktake.

The scheme between junctions 10 and 13 opened in December 2012 and a one-year after POPE report was completed in 2016 but not published until January 2020, more than three years later.

The section between junctions 28 and 31 opened in 2016 and the junctions 32-35a scheme opened the following spring.

The five-year report into the scheme between junctions 10 and 13 could be particularly revealing as it would only be the second long-term report into an all lane running scheme to be published.

As Highways has revealed, a report into a smart motorway section of the M6 revealed that the motorway became more dangerous as extra traffic took up the additional capacity created by the removal of the hard shoulder.

Highways England has only published one POPE since last year’s stocktake – into the recently opened M3 scheme. This revealed that the increase in carbon emissions since the scheme opened was even higher than forecast.

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