PCC Blog 45

Last week the issue of smart motorways loomed large in our correspondence and media interest.

‘Smart motorways’ are where the hard shoulder is replaced by a live lane with occasional refuges. They are referred to as ALR, ‘all lanes running’ – and we have a section of ALR motorway in South Yorkshire on the M1 near Meadowhall. I have always regarded them as inherently dangerous.

They have been in the news again, both locally and nationally, because two of our coroners, responsible for the inquests of those killed in collisions, have commented on them. Then just over a week ago we had another major incident in which one person received very serious injuries and had to be airlifted to hospital, closing carriageways for three hours. All this is of concern to me because the police are usually the first of the emergency services to arrive on the scene. And, on a personal note, in normal times I drive along here quite often.

I was contacted by journalists from the Sunday Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the Sun and I spoke on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 and Radio Berkshire, where part of the M4 is being made into an ALR motorway.

Two things have struck me about all of this. Usually, if you express a point of view, you quickly discover, if you didn’t know already, that not everyone thinks as you do! But as one of the journalists and one of the broadcasters said to me, ‘No one seems to think ALRs are a good idea, let alone a smart one.’

The other thing I noticed was the way both ministers and Highways England seem to think that the repetition of a familiar mantra about how safe they are is a sufficient justification for continuing with the roll out of smart motorways even when so much disquiet has been expressed. So, for instance, in a letter to me last week – which is published on my website – the minister wrote: “Overall, evidence shows that in most ways ALR motorways are as safe as, or safer than, conventional motorways, but not in every way”. (I did worry and wonder about that ‘but not in every way’ – but the minister did not elaborate). I know the statistics, but it seems more likely to me that better safety figures are because ALRs have gantries and speed regulation, not because they have no hard shoulder.

My question to those who are pushing on with the programme is this: if you were to break down in your car with your family in a live lane on the ALR stretch of the M1, would you be thinking, ‘At least we are as safe if not safer than on a conventional motorway’.

I think I know the answer. We should be designing dangers out, not building them in.

Suicide and coronavirus

Police officers, we know, are called to many kinds of incident.

In a previous blog I spoke about how harrowing it can be when they have to deal with someone who has taken their own life. There is the body to be recovered and next of kin to be informed. Any death in this way is distressing, but people die by suicide in many different ways, some of which are very shocking.

Perhaps we should not be surprised to find that there has been a rise in suicide and attempted suicide during the time of lock-downs and restrictions. But that upward trend was happening before the pandemic. So why is that?

Looking at recent statistics, two other things stood out.

The first was that South Yorkshire seems to have a relatively high number of suicides as compared with other parts of the country. In 2019 there were 171 across the county. (Barnsley 28, Doncaster 41, Rotherham 36, Sheffield 66) Again, why should this be?

Second, there was the age profile. It is happening to younger age groups. In 2020 the data showed that the most at risk age group had dropped from 46-59 years to 30-45 years. This is worrying given that we may be facing a bleak future economically in the county and that will have significant impact on those in younger age groups. It also means that as the force recruits large numbers in the next few years, those younger officers will be called upon to deal with situations involving people in or nearer their own age group – and that means that careful debriefing becomes critical. The force seeks to prevent suicide and one of the most crucial things it has done in recent years is to become well-linked with health and social care colleagues through membership of the Integrated Care System (ICS). This has proved invaluable in helping the force respond well when officers come across someone in a mental health crisis. The ICS also funds a Suicide Prevention Officer in the force.

Prevention is about helping front-line officers to be alert to the possibility of suicide among those they come across – keeping an eye out for vulnerable people, people with particular mental health issues, and so on – and knowing what to do next.

Well, I never. Blue light elephants…

You may wonder what the photograph at the head of this column is all about. Briefly, one of my nine year old granddaughters drew me a picture of an elephant with a blue light on its head. She told me that as well as police horses we should also have police elephants. They would be better for crowd control because ‘they could swish people out of the way with their trunks’.

When I told this story to a group of friends of Greenhill Library, Sheffield, on a video call, one of them subsequently, rather imaginatively, set to work with a plastic milk container to make a police elephant with a blue light.

I have yet to put the idea of elephants to the Chief Constable.