Shapps admits error over smart motorway safety

Chris Ames

The transport secretary has admitted that it was ‘entirely wrong’ to roll out all lane running ‘smart motorways’ without the stopped vehicle detection (SVD) technology that would justify the name.

Speaking to MPs on the Transport Select Committee, Grant Shapps has pledged to complete the roll-out of SVD on existing schemes by the end of next year.

The pledge represents a slight shortening of the timetable set out in last year’s stocktake and action plan, which promised that SVD would be retrofitted to existing all lane running schemes within three years, i.e, by March 2023.

Mr Shapps said: ‘It was entirely wrong to build a so-called smart motorway – and you question the naming of it – without the technology in place to make it safer.

‘That’s not the right approach. And the main technology, one of the main technologies, is to be able to see immediately if a car or vehicle is stopped, and that stopped vehicle detection wasn’t available across the network.’

He added: ‘As a result of looking now, a year on [from the stocktake], I’ve met with Highways England, put pressure on, and we’re bringing it forward again. And we will have the smart vehicle detection developed and installed next year, on all of the network.’

Mr Shapps’ comments reflect the fact that despite being labelled ‘smart’, most all lane running sections of motorway (where the hard shoulder has been removed) rely on CCTV coverage to detect stopped vehicles, as well as ‘MIDAS’ sensors that detect when other traffic has slowed.

Highways England’s own data has shown that it can take an average of 17 minutes to detect a stationary vehicle in a live lane.

The Daily Mail reported that Mr Shapps and roads minister Baroness Vere met outgoing Highways England chief Jim O’Sullivan last week.

Mr Shapps told the newspaper: ‘Highways England have assured me they can speed up work in certain areas.’

The government-owned company has published a timetable for its retrofit programme, with most schemes seeing work during the 2021/22 and 2022/23 financial years.

The first retrofit works resulting from the stocktake – on the M20 in Kent – began last month.

A Highways England spokesperson told Highways it was working up the details to meet the new timescale.

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