Highway to hell: Rebellion breaks out over smart motorways

Highway to hell: Rebellion breaks out over smart motorways as roads chief tries to play down probe into ‘death trap’ system… but employee hits back

  • Rebellion at National Highways erupted over investigation in smart motorways
  • Chief executive Nick Harris emailed hundreds of staff on Monday to complain
  • One employee replied and listed a number of failures they were trying to resolve
  • A rebellion has erupted at National Highways after the chief executive tried to play down the Mail’s undercover investigation into ‘death trap’ smart motorways.

    Nick Harris emailed hundreds of staff on Monday to complain about this newspaper’s bombshell revelations – without identifying any errors.

    One employee hit back by listing a catalogue of failures they were desperately trying to resolve. The staff member urged Mr Harris to fix safety equipment on a section of the M4, claiming the combination of faulty cameras, SOS boxes and signals was a ‘perfect storm’.

    ‘This is just one example, please get it sorted,’ the worker said. The reply – copied to everyone who had received Mr Harris’s email – told the chief executive: ‘I don’t think your message was very helpful.’

    A rebellion has erupted at National Highways after the chief executive tried to play down the Mail’s undercover investigation into ‘death trap’ smart motorways. Pictured: National Highways East Regional Operations Centre based in South Mimms

    A rebellion has erupted at National Highways after the chief executive tried to play down the Mail’s undercover investigation into ‘death trap’ smart motorways. Pictured: National Highways East Regional Operations Centre based in South Mimms

    Several more members of staff have contacted the Mail since our investigation was published on Monday. It revealed that one in ten cameras – vital to the safe operation of the network – was broken, misted up or facing the wrong way during an audit on September 17.

    Faulty and outdated computer hardware dating back to 2004 was in use and software went down several times in the six weeks an undercover reporter worked at one of six National Highways control centres.

    Boris Johnson has ordered a ‘thorough’ investigation into the Mail’s shocking findings. Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, admitted he was ‘deeply concerned’ and has demanded an update from the agency ‘within days’.

    Campaigners claim smart motorways – where the hard shoulder is a running lane – have caused a string of deaths.

    Mr Harris, who is paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, sent the email to all employees working at – or with – the control centre where the Mail reporter was based. He wrote: ‘I understand all too well how many of us will feel about the tone and content of the story – especially our people at South Mimms.’

    He claimed he ‘didn’t recognise many of the serious allegations’ made in our exposé but said ‘we must look into them’.

    National Highways chief executive Nick Harris

    National Highways chief executive Nick Harris

    Mr Harris seemed just as concerned at how the Mail’s reporter had managed to secure a job with National Highways. He wrote: ‘Our recruitment processes are constantly under review – and we’ll make any changes to our screening methods that are necessary as a result of this incident.

    ‘It’s important to remember, though, that undercover journalists are intelligent, determined and resourceful people who are very good at disguising themselves.’

    The incensed staff member who replied to Mr Harris included in his email a screenshot of an elevated section of the M4 with a row of red camera icons, saying: ‘Six cameras in a row are not working.’

    The worker said that there was also a faulty SOS phone that ‘rings in many times each shift’ but cannot be checked due to the lack of cameras.

    Highlighting that there had been no response to any of the warnings, the employee asked Mr Harris: ‘Would you like me to forward you the emails? Oh, I forgot to mention some of the signals aren’t working there either.

    ‘So an elevated motorway with no hard shoulder, no camera coverage, faulty signals and a faulty SOS phone? A perfect storm.’ Another whistleblower said our investigation had caused a ‘spike in staff speaking up’. ‘We’ve all known this has been happening for a long time,’ he added.

    The employee, who works as a traffic officer patrolling roads and dealing with incidents, said: ‘My life is at risk every time I go to work.’

    He criticised the uniform, saying officers often arrive at accidents before police and have to try to calm aggressive drivers while wearing ‘silly’ trousers that ‘make you look like a bin man’.

    Accusing the agency of ‘incompetence’, he said traffic patrols were expected to reach breakdowns and accidents quickly but lacked blue emergency lights and could not drive on the hard shoulder or break the speed limit. He also highlighted a ‘not-fit-for-purpose vehicle service plan which leaves us without patrol cars for weeks and sometimes months for simple repairs’.

    A former employee, who worked at the agency for several years, said: ‘Maladministration, faulty hardware and National Highways’ culture of never admitting liability means motorists are being set up to fail.’

    Mr Harris said: ‘Safety remains our top priority and our motorways are the safest type of road in the country. Data shows fatalities are less likely on smart motorways than on conventional ones, but we recognise concerns continue to be raised.

    ‘We are determined to do all we can to help drivers feel safe and be safer on all our roads and we are investigating these allegations as a matter of urgency.’

    National Highways suggested that the faulty M4 cameras were obsolete and would be removed. 

    ‘Death trap’ lanes left open too long 

    Motorists are being left without crucial refuge points on ‘death trap’ smart motorways because of highways staff failings, the Mail can reveal.

    Perilous ‘dynamic’ motorways work by opening the hard shoulder as a live lane for short stints during periods of heavy traffic to reduce congestion.

    But in a damning internal email, managers told staff they were leaving the refuge area ‘open when we really shouldn’t’, adding: ‘We don’t just open the hard shoulder and leave it for eight hours.’

    It means the hard shoulder operates as a driving lane for much longer than it should and there is no escape for motorists who break down.

    Staff at each Regional Operations Centre (ROC) should monitor the dynamic motorways – which operate on 67 miles of the road network on parts of the M1, M4, M5, M6, M42 and M62 – and record their observations.

    Dev Naran, eight, (right) died instantly in 2018 after a lorry ploughed into his grandfather’s stationary Toyota Yaris which was stopped on the hard shoulder while it was operating as a live lane on the M6

    Dev Naran, eight, (right) died instantly in 2018 after a lorry ploughed into his grandfather’s stationary Toyota Yaris which was stopped on the hard shoulder while it was operating as a live lane on the M6

    At least six people have been killed on the horror roads, with coroners warning the ‘confusing’ motorways are a danger.

    Dev Naran, eight, died instantly in 2018 after a lorry ploughed into his grandfather’s stationary Toyota Yaris which was stopped on the hard shoulder while it was operating as a live lane on the M6.

    Writing to staff at the South Mimms control room in Hertfordshire last month, a team manager admitted operators were not ‘recording the information properly’.

    The East ROC is responsible for a stretch of dynamic motorway between Junctions 10 to 13 of the M1, which starts near Luton and ends before Milton Keynes.

    She wrote: ‘I have been passed some figures that show we are leaving the MM [managed motorway] open when we really shouldn’t. I have noticed too many that just get scheduled for an entire shift without any updates going in it as to whether congestion has cleared and we are able to close links.’

    Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last year vowed to scrap ‘confusing’ dynamic motorways by converting them into All Lane Running – where the hard shoulder is permanently used as a fourth lane – by March 2025.

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    Case for the hard shoulder is now beyond all doubt 

    Commentary by Nick Lyes, Head of roads policy at the RAC

    Back in 2019, some 67 per cent of drivers told the RAC that they believed that safety had been compromised as a result of removing the hard shoulder on Britain’s motorways.

    By this year alone, that figure had leapt to a stunning 84 per cent. And after the Mail’s damning reports on smart motorways this week, I would not be surprised if that number was now very close to 100 per cent.

    The case for abolishing so-called ‘All Lane Running’ smart motorways, which remove the hard shoulder entirely but can allow for lane closure in the event of a car breaking down or in certain other circumstances, is now overwhelming.

    I was horrified when I read in this newspaper of the litany of problems and technical failures that are putting people’s lives at risk on smart motorways: from cameras breaking down, obscured by leaves or condensation or pointing the wrong way, to outdated equipment and staff failing to monitor the network properly.

    Back in 2019, some 67 per cent of drivers told the RAC that they believed that safety had been compromised as a result of removing the hard shoulder on Britain’s motorways (stock image)

    Back in 2019, some 67 per cent of drivers told the RAC that they believed that safety had been compromised as a result of removing the hard shoulder on Britain’s motorways (stock image)

    But my horror was not matched by surprise.

    At the RAC, we have been warning for years about these dangers.

    We’ve given key evidence to Government committees citing our grave concerns about the unreliable technology.

    We’ve told of drivers suffering blown-out tyres or engine problems and being forced to stop and wait in the far-left lane of the motorway – and initially not realising that they remain helpless in the path of speeding traffic behind them.

    We’ve told of these people’s terror as they wait for our patrols to assist them – and, in some cases, how others have even been killed or seriously injured.

    When I joined the RAC in 2015 as Head of Roads Policy, there was already growing disquiet about the All Lane Running (ALR) system that the Government had introduced the year before.

    Under ALR, the hard shoulder is permanently converted into a running lane unless it needs to be closed following an accident or some other reason.

    The case for abolishing so-called ‘All Lane Running’ smart motorways, which remove the hard shoulder entirely but can allow for lane closure in the event of a car breaking down or in certain other circumstances, is now overwhelming (stock image)

    The case for abolishing so-called ‘All Lane Running’ smart motorways, which remove the hard shoulder entirely but can allow for lane closure in the event of a car breaking down or in certain other circumstances, is now overwhelming (stock image)

    Even back then, with the scheme still in its relative infancy, it was clear to us from our patrols and from emails sent to our headquarters that drivers did not feel safe in them. Yet, desperate to find a long-term, cheaper way of easing mounting congestion on the country’s road network, successive governments have seemed ever more determined to plough ahead with ALR motorways – despite the mounting strength of feeling against them and the evidence that they can, when things go wrong, be fatal to drivers.

    That applies doubly if you or one of your passengers is disabled – as, for example, my father is.

    If you have mobility issues, it is not always possible to act on the advice of National Highways to get out of your vehicle if it is safe to do so. I would worry terribly if my parents had to undertake a motorway journey these days.

    Even when the technology works, it isn’t foolproof: we know that almost 1 in 4 people have admitted to ignoring a ‘lane-closed’ sign telling them there is a blockage or incident ahead.

    Such lapses can kill. Behind all the statistics of deaths on smart motorways (53 people were killed on them in the four years to 2019) there is a terrible human cost – wives, husbands, sons and daughters lost.

    Of course, hard shoulders are not a panacea: people get injured and killed on them, too.

    But, if your car has broken down, they are undoubtedly a safer place to be than in a live lane with traffic coming up behind you at 70mph.

    So, given that traffic levels are likely to continue to increase exponentially in years to come, what is to be done? An obvious solution is more lanes – but that means money and time. Smart motorways cost as little as £5 million per mile compared to £79 million per mile for a whole new lane.

    The fact is, though, that smart motorways can work – but only if there are plentiful refuge areas and if the technology makes the system work faultlessly.

    Alas, as the Mail has so chillingly illustrated, the problem is that in too many cases it doesn’t.

    We at the RAC believe the solution is already there in a return to so-called ‘dynamic hard shoulder’ motorways, which retain the hard shoulder, clearly marked, but which allow this to be opened up to traffic when needed – for example at times of severe congestion.

    Stringent speed limits, frequent refuge areas and close monitoring by the relevant agencies must all apply. This, we believe, is a sensible halfway house between the risky madness of ‘ALR’ and the hard shoulder we all used to know.

    It has a good safety record, yet last year the Government made a commitment to scrap the ‘dynamic hard shoulder’ altogether.

    It is now high time that they reconsidered – and avoided more terrible tragedies on Britain’s roads.  

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