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Highways England report reveals smart motorways increase danger of breakdowns

Auto Express logo Auto Express 30/08/2019 Tristan Shale-Hester

© Getty Breaking down in a live lane on an all-lane-running (ALR) section of a ‘digital road’ – more commonly known as a smart motorway – is 216 per cent more dangerous than doing so on a conventional motorway with a hard shoulder, a damning report by the organisation responsible for running motorways has revealed.

According to Highways England’s own hazard log data, breaking down in a live lane of an ALR smart motorway is 216 per cent more dangerous than doing so on a conventional motorway with a hard shoulder.

The data was revealed by a Highways England report written in 2016 and only recently discovered by the AA. Entitled ‘Stationary Vehicle Detection Monitoring’, the report also references data on breakdowns in live ALR lanes of the M25 between junctions 25 and 26, which shows the average time for Highways England CCTV operatives took to spot a broken-down vehicle in a live lane was 17 minutes and one second, with one breakdown taking over an hour for operatives to spot.

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The AA also sent a Freedom of Information request to Highways England, which revealed that there are 135.1 miles of ALR smart motorways in England, but only 24.2 miles are covered by a system that automatically detects vehicles broken down in live lanes. This is spread over two sections of the M25 – one from J5-6 and the other from J23-27.

Stationary Vehicle Detection (SVD) – a radar system capable of automatically detecting stationary vehicles across multiple lanes – can spot a broken-down vehicle 16 minutes faster than human CCTV operatives on average. When a vehicle is detected by SVD, an alarm in the operations centre is triggered, causing staff to investigate and take necessary action, closing the appropriate lane and setting digital signs to warn other drivers. In ALR schemes were SVD technology is not used, 36 per cent of live lane breakdowns took over 15 minutes to find.

The report also reveals HIghways England’s targets give a three-minute window in which to set a signal change, such as bringing up a red X symbol to close the lane, when a vehicle stops in a live lane. Highways England says this target does not change, regardless of by which method the broken-down vehicle is detected.

© Getty The report’s revelations are at odds with Government evidence given to the Transport Select Committee in September 2016, when the Committee heard Stopped Vehicle Detection systems would be applied to all sections of ALR smart motorway. SVD will not not be operational on the M3 J2-4a until 2021, while other schemes currently in development are set to be completed in 2022. The M4 will be fitted with other emerging technology instead, but Highways England has not confirmed what this will be.

In addition, the AA has learned that seven per cent of Highways England’s CCTV overlooking motorways is in ALR sections, roughly proportionate with the six per cent of the UK’s motorway network that is comprised of ALR roads. These cameras are of the ‘Pan, Tilt and Zoom’ variety, which means they can only look in one direction at a time. If an incident occurs in northbound, for example, and the camera is looking southbound, an operative is unlikely to spot the incident until the camera is turned around. 

Edmund King, president of the AA, described the news as a “truly shocking revelation”. He said: “Taking three minutes to set the red X is too long for someone in a broken-down vehicle to wait. Expecting someone to wait in a dangerous and life-threatening position for 20 minutes is simply inexcusable.”

Sunset view heavy traffic moving at speed on UK motorway in England. © Getty Sunset view heavy traffic moving at speed on UK motorway in England.

Max Brown, head of smart roads at Highways England, commented: “The evidence is clear that smart motorways improve safety, with or without automatic stopped vehicle detection systems. The latest generation of smart motorways have helped to improve safety by at least 25 per cent.

“Our trials on the M25 have shown that a stopped vehicle detection system can be a valuable extra tool to help spot incidents more quickly, and the technology is being designed into all the smart motorway projects that we start constructing from next year.

“Meanwhile we are looking how we could provide the same benefits on all our other recently opened smart motorway upgrades and work on installing a stopped vehicle detection system on the M3 smart motorway in Surrey and Hampshire is already underway.”

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