Roads boss defends smart motorway safety

Jim O’Sullivan told a roads conference in London yesterday: “I do find it hard to understand the gap between the work we have done on smart motorways to make them safe and keep them safe, and the perception they are unsafe; often expressed in newspapers and by certain motoring organisations.

“We know the accident rates on smart motorways are no different to conventional motorways; both are among the safest roads in the world and are about 10 times safer than local built up roads.”

His advice for motorists who find themselves in difficulty and cannot reach an emergency refuge area and exit their car safely is: “Keep your seatbelt on, use your hazard lights and call 999.”

Jim was asked if he is confident in the design of new smart motorways being taken forward in the second Road Investment Period and whether the spacing between emergency areas on these schemes needs to reduce. “We have data that says that putting the refuge areas closer together makes people feel safer, but it doesn’t actually seem to reduce the accident rate,” he replied.

“We have motorways out there now with refuge areas that are less than a kilometre apart (on the M42), and up to a mile and a half on some stretches of the M1. There seems to be no correlation between the spacing of emergency refuge areas and live lane breakdowns.”

Jim acknowledged this may seem “highly counter intuitive” but added: “That is what we are seeing”. He went on to say that Highways England is working hard to make emergency areas more visible to help make people feel safer.

He also said that additional emergency refuges are set to be retrofitted on the M25, adding: “It will be interesting to see if they have any impact at all on live lane breakdowns.”

Jim O’Sullivan also spoke about on going efforts to reduce the impact of vehicle emissions alongside certain stretches of motorway, for the benefit of local people. On the M1 in South Yorkshire, he explained, a nine metre high barrier will soon be installed to direct pollution away from nearby homes.

“But ultimately the solution to poor air quality comes from a reduction in vehicle emissions,” he added. “The number of ultra low and zero emission vehicles on the network desperately needs to increase.

“We are encouraging this by installing vehicle charging points across the country and have a current commitment to ensure that 95% of motorways and major A roads are within 20 miles of a charge point by March; we will hit that target and we are looking at ways of becoming more ambitious and pushing that target further.”

Jim also touched upon Highways England’s recent efforts to transform the way it manages its assets. “We have brought responsibility for asset investment and operational decision making in house and we carry out roles previously carried out by suppliers.

“After Genoa (the Italian bridge collapse) it is essential that an asset owner can demonstrate they understand the assets and the care they need for them to remain safe and serviceable.”

Jim O’Sullivan was speaking at a policy conference organised by the Westminster Energy, Environment & Transport Forum.