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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Managed Motorway Scheme (South Yorkshire)

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Meg secured a Parliamentary debate on the proposal by the Highway Agency to adopt a ‘managed motorway’ scheme for the section of the M1 near Sheffield, her speech follows.


Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): I am pleased to have secured today’s debate on the managed motorway scheme consultation for the M1, between junctions 32 and 35a. The consultation that could have such fundamental consequences for the safety of motorists on this section of the M1 was just eight weeks long over the Christmas period.

The Highways Agency’s proposals recommend the implementation of variable mandatory speed limits between junctions 32 to 35a, which is a section of motorway around the city of Sheffield. The section carries around 110,000 vehicles per day, and is congested during the weekday morning and evening peak hours and, like all roads, at other times.

The consultation document recommends that variable speed limits should be set in response to traffic conditions, automatically calculated from sensors buried in the road. Speed limits would be displayed on the motorway indicator signs above lanes, mounted on existing overhead gantries, and on additional verge-mounted signs. Where no speed limit is displayed, the national speed limit would be in force. However, the proposals, unlike other managed motorway schemes, include the use of the hard shoulder 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Emergency refuge areas would be created at intervals of a maximum of 2,500 metres, and would include emergency telephones. All other telephones would be removed from the hard shoulder, as it would in effect become a permanent fourth lane.

Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, as I wanted to have the opportunity to intervene on the issue of refuge areas. I note that the Highways Agency website refers to the emergency refuge areas that will be in operation, saying that they will provide an area of relative safety”.

Is she satisfied with the concept of “relative safety”, and does she hope that the Minister, in his response to the debate, will define what that means?

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend makes an important point about “relative safety”. There are lots of concerns about “relative safety”. Having driven down the M1 on Sunday and having looked at refuge areas in other managed motorway areas, it concerns me that “relative safety” is not equivalent to the kind of safety that we expect for people on the edge of motorways.

The consultation document suggests that the benefits would lead to an increase in motorway capacity and reduced congestion; smoother traffic flows; more reliable journey times; an increase and improvement to the quality of information for the driver; and lower costs and less environmental impact than conventional widening programmes. In effect, the Highways Agency is suggesting that this proposal is the best solution to add capacity to the existing strategic road network. It claims that these benefits can only be achieved by the use of variable mandatory speed limits and the use of the hard shoulder as an additional lane 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I do not agree with all the recommendations, and I challenge some of the argumentation set out in the proposals. Worryingly, there is no objective to increase road safety on this section of the motorway, which I would have thought should have been a priority.

Managed motorway schemes have been introduced elsewhere, notably on the M6 and M42. As I said earlier, schemes on those motorways differ from the proposals for the section of the M1 that I am discussing. Other schemes have only been introduced at peak flow times—weekday morning and evening rush hours—and with the overhead gantries spaced at 500 metres. The hard shoulder then reverts to just that—a hard shoulder—when congestion is not an issue. Evidence suggests that the introduction of a managed motorway scheme on those motorways has indeed led to a reduction in congestion and an improvement in traffic flows, resulting in fewer accidents and more reliable journey times.

In response to a parliamentary question that I asked, the Minister said: “The safety risk analysis of all lanes…of the M42… showed that the average number of personal injury accidents reduced from 5.08 per month…to 2.25 per month following the introduction of hard shoulder running.”—[Official Report, 14 February 2013; Vol. 558, c. 846W.]

That is a statistic for which the Highways Agency should be applauded, but my concern is about the very different proposals for the M1. The two schemes are not directly comparable and it is misleading to suggest, both in the consultation documents and in the reply to my parliamentary question, that they are.

What is different, and what has not been taken fully into account, is the issue of hard shoulder running for 24 hours, seven days a week. I am particularly concerned that this part of the proposal, if it is adopted, would have a detrimental impact on safety and the ability of the emergency services to respond to major incidents.

It is in non-peak times that accidents are most likely to occur, a situation that could potentially be aggravated by poor visibility. The detection of a stranded vehicle would be very difficult unless CCTV cameras are constantly monitored, and as I understand it the electronic detection system will only activate when traffic slows and therefore it would do little to warn approaching drivers.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important debate. I think that she is aware that I have written to the chief constable of South Yorkshire police, David Crompton, about these matters. In his reply, he says: Of main concern to the partnership”— the South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership— is the anticipated 200% increase in risk of having stationary vehicles in live lanes, which by its very nature may result in collisions.

That is a very different situation from the one on the M42 that she has just referred to.

Meg Munn: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If a vehicle broke down where a refuge could not be reached, its occupants would have to exit the vehicle in a live lane, which would be an increased risk to them—as the chief constable said, an increased risk of “200%”—as well as endangering other drivers, who might hit the stationary vehicle.

Information provided to the South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership indicates that, while the Highways Agency predicts an overall decrease in risk, certain risks will increase significantly, as my hon. Friend has outlined, including the risk of a collision with a vehicle that has stopped in a running lane outside of peak periods. That risk would be further increased by the volume of lorries, which are often driven by foreign drivers, that use this stretch of the M1 particularly at night, when the traffic is fast-moving and the lighting is turned off, as it now will be.

The proposals make much of verge-mounted speed enforcement equipment and traditional enforcement by the police to ensure that speed limits are not being exceeded. However, the roadside speed enforcement equipment that has been cited has not been approved by the Home Office.

Also the traditional enforcement action by police of pulling over drivers on to the hard shoulder when they are in contravention of the law will be taken away, because there will not be any hard shoulder. This is already reflected in the enforcement strategy within the existing schemes in the west midlands, where different and more challenging methods of policing have had to be adopted, but only at peak times; at other times, which of course is the majority of the day and night, the police can revert to traditional enforcement methods.

Let me give the Minister some examples. The police chase a 16-year-old in a stolen car late at night. They manage that situation by forcing the car on to the hard shoulder. That will not be an option for them if these proposals are adopted.

Similarly, in the case of an accident leaving debris on the road, the police use the hard shoulder to drive ahead and create a sterile area to protect other road users. That will not be an option for them if these proposals are adopted.

Also, police chase suspects at high speed and the cars enter the motorway system. The police use the hard shoulder to intercept and contain the perpetrators, and to minimise danger to other road users. Once again, that will not be an option for them if these proposals are adopted.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Stephen Hammond): I was interested to hear the first example that the hon. Lady gave. Of course, South Yorkshire police is quite different from other police forces around the country. I am not sure whether she was saying that that was an incident that had happened on the motorway, or that South Yorkshire police—using a practice that is quite contrary to that of a lot of other police forces—actually sees the motorway as a device that it drives offenders on to, which is quite a different way of operating.

Meg Munn: I am not sure that the Minister understood what I said.

Stephen Hammond: I said that I was not sure whether the hon. Lady was saying that the offenders in the speeding car start on the motorway or that the police force them on to the motorway, which I understand is a practice prevalent in south Yorkshire.

Meg Munn: No, I am not talking about a situation in which the police are forcing a driver on to the motorway. I am saying that they can manage the situation of a stolen vehicle on the motorway, which is a dangerous situation, by using the hard shoulder. If the hard shoulder is being used for permanent running, that possibility is no longer available.

A major incident in south Yorkshire would require a response by fire and rescue services from all bordering areas. Emergency services use the hard shoulder to speed up response times. Again, that will not be an option for them if these proposals are adopted.

Even normal operations to reinforce good driving would no longer be an option. I recently spent time with police officers who were specifically looking at the behaviour of lorry drivers, which included identifying one who was watching a DVD. With no hard shoulders, such routine operations could no longer take place and drivers’ bad habits would not be identified and prosecuted. Such operations have been normal practice, in order to improve driving on this motorway.

Stephen Hammond rose—

Meg Munn: The Minister will have a chance to respond to the debate later, so I will continue.

South Yorkshire police said publicly that if the proposals are adopted, they would cause fundamental operational difficulties, and it has gone on to say that the proposals could also cost lives. In addition, I am sure that the proposals will undoubtedly place a greater burden on hard-pressed police officers and other members of the emergency services.

South Yorkshire Safer Roads Partnership is a multi-agency partnership consisting of representatives of the south Yorkshire local authorities and the accident and emergency services, and it is chaired by the South Yorkshire police chief inspector responsible for roads policing. The partnership has welcomed the proposal to introduce hard shoulder running in peak flow time—the morning and evening rush hours. However, like me, the partnership is opposed to the suggestion of hard shoulder running 24 hours, seven days a week. This opposition is based primarily on safety grounds.

The partnership contends that variable messaging for speed management purposes should use signs on the well understood and widely established gantry system, rather than using verge-mounted signs. Verge-mounted signs are not as visible; they are often obscured by high-sided vehicles in the slower lanes; and drivers have to take their eyes off the road ahead to view them. Gantries that are properly spaced are visible by drivers when they are looking straight ahead; therefore, they are easier to see at a glance, and importantly a glance ahead where any traffic or debris would still be visible. It agrees that the reinstatement of the hard shoulder outside peak flow times would also ensure that emergency services could use the motorway system more effectively to attend major incidents, and that safety would not be compromised by having no hard shoulder when traffic is light and fast moving, and when visibility is poor.

The proposals suggest that, where danger exists, red X signs would flash and a lane divert signal would be shown over a lane, but accidents can only be avoided if sufficient gantries are provided. Safety cannot be enhanced by the use of roadside signs, which are not as clearly, safely or instantly visible. Therefore the proposals will not be as effective or safe as having the hard shoulder available outside rush hours and using overhead gantries for messages.

The safer roads partnership also disputes the passing reference to safety in the consultation documents, where it is claimed that this section of the M1 has a trend of increasing accidents and casualties. Its data suggest the opposite: in the past six years there has been a 25% reduction in collisions on this section of the Ml.

In this short debate I have not had time to go into other concerns in detail. My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), who wants to make a brief contribution, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), who cannot attend, are particularly concerned about the impact on their constituents of increased noise and pollution, with nothing being offered by the Highways Agency to mitigate the effects.

I welcome the proposals to introduce a managed motorway scheme on the M1 in South Yorkshire during peak times, but only peak times, with proper regard to safety and signage delivered via overhead gantries. I cannot support proposals to have 24-hour, seven-days-a-week use of the hard shoulder. The adoption of the proposals will be the thin end of the wedge, and further schemes to use the hard shoulder permanently as a fourth lane will be forthcoming for all stretches of our motorway system. That will reduce road safety and have a detrimental impact on the police’s ability to uphold the law and on emergency services’ response times.

I suspect that the Minister’s reply will repeat much of the misleading and inaccurate information. I understand that he will not be able to respond immediately to all the issues I have raised today. I know he cares about road safety—he has recently been involved in campaigns about it—and will want to consider what I have said. I am asking him to go back to his officials and the Highways Agency and consider all this information carefully. I am asking him to recognise that it is highly unusual for the police to say, without good reason, that something will cost lives.

We need a proper managed motorway scheme built on facts, not one built on cutting corners, to be done on the cheap without regard to road safety.


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