Smart motorway safety to be subject of Government investigation

Motorway
24 Oct, 2019 1:00pm Tristan Shale-Hester Hugo Griffiths

Transport Secretary announces “evidence stock take” on how safe smart motorways are in comparison to conventional ones

An investigation will be held into the safety of smart motorways, the Secretary of State for Transport has announced.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Grant Shapps said he recognised concerns raised over how safe smart motorways are in comparison to conventional ones, telling MPs that he has asked for an “evidence stock take” to be carried out.

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In answer to a question from Lillian Greenwood MP, chair of the Transport Select Committee, Shapps said the investigation would be carried out by the Department for Transport (DfT) - rather than an independent body - within the next few weeks.

“I will ensure that it’s the Department that is making decisions on this because I think that some of the statistics have been difficult to understand and we know that people are dying on smart motorways,” he said. “I want recommendations that could be put into place to ensure all of our motorways are as safe as they possibly can be.”

It comes after Jim O’Sullivan, chief executive of Highways England, was grilled by the Transport Select Committee on the topic of smart motorways.

In answer to a question from Greenwood regarding the fact that Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) has only been rolled out to 18 per cent of the smart motorway network - despite Highways England having promised in 2016 that it would feature across the entire network - O’Sullivan admitted that casualties would have been avoided.

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“It’s impossible to quantify,” he said. “Of the eight fatalities, undoubtedly one or two might have been avoided, but not all of them would.”

He added: “This is ground-breaking technology. We had to prove it before we could roll it out.”

Edmund King, president of the AA, was pleased at the news of a review into smart motorway safety, saying: “We have been raising concerns for more than six years about the dangers of the 38 per cent who breakdown in a live lane on smart motorways. We hope the review will stop a further rollout unless more Emergency Refuge Areas are planned and retrofitted.

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“We trust that the review will not get overtaken by misleading or partial statistical analysis about what type of road is safer but will concentrate on avoidable deaths. We know there are real situations where lives would have saved if drivers on smart motorways had somewhere safe to stop. We owe it to all drivers to give them a safe harbour to stop if their vehicle develops problems.”

Nicholas Lyes, head of roads policy at the RAC, also welcomed the news. He commented: “While it’s important that we increase capacity on our motorway network, this should only be done using the safest design features and the latest technology which has sadly only been the case on a fraction of smart motorways. Drivers must have confidence that they will be protected from traffic in the event they suffer a breakdown in live lane, particularly where the hard shoulder has been permanently removed.

“We reiterate our calls for the latest SVD technology to be retrofitted on all sections of smart motorway as a matter of urgency and for more SOS areas to be built so drivers are never more than a mile away from one. These measures should also be included in all smart motorway schemes that are currently being built or planned.”

Only 10 per cent of drivers feel safer on smart motorways

Only 10 per cent of drivers feel safer on all-lane running (ALR) smart motorways than conventional motorways with a hard shoulder, new research has shown.

Of the 15,152 people who responded to the September 2019 AA Populus survey, 71 per cent said they feel that ALR smart motorways are more dangerous than normal motorways with a hard shoulder, while 48 per cent strongly feel this way.

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Whereas 23 per cent of the 25,208 respondents to the February 2016 Populus survey felt 1.5 miles was a suitable distance between emergency refuge areas (ERAs) on ALR smart motorways, this figure fell to 16 per cent in the 2019 poll.

From 2020, all new ALR smart motorway schemes will have ERAs spaced no more than one mile apart from each other, but only 41 per cent believe this is a suitable distance, with 63 per cent saying they should be set no more than half a mile apart. This reveals a considerable change in attitudes from 2016.

What’s an acceptable distance between ERAs?

February 2016

September 2019

Percentage change

1.5 miles

23%

16%

-30%

1.0 miles

55%

41%

-25%

0.5 miles

52%

63%

+21%

Furthermore, 52 per cent of respondents believe the rollout of ALR smart motorways should be halted, following five deaths occurring along the same stretch of the M1.

Edmund King, president of the AA, commented: “We believe the Secretary of State [for Transport] should now announce a review into the safety of All Lane Running Schemes.

“Unfortunately, we have already seen fatalities where vehicles have been left in vulnerable positions in live lanes. Previous research has shown that, if Stopped Vehicle Detection is not in place, it takes an average of 17 minutes to spot a stationary vehicle in a live lane.

“Our new study shows that public trust on removing the hard shoulder has pretty much evaporated. Before any further schemes begin, we need an urgent and independent review into the safety of existing schemes.”

This news comes after data from Highways England revealed that over two dozen vehicles a day broke down in live lanes of all-lane running motorways over the past two years. A total of 19,316 breakdowns were logged in live lanes on all lane running (ALR) sections of motorways - stretches of road with no hard shoulder.

A total 51,109 ALR breakdowns were recorded by Highways England over 2017 and 2018. While the majority - 28,547 - of drivers were able to pull into refuge areas or make it to a verge or junction, 38 per cent were forced to stop in lanes that were open to moving traffic. 

Highways England report reveals smart motorways can increase danger of breakdowns 

Breaking down in a live lane on an all-lane-running (ALR) section of a smart motorway during off-peak hours 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.

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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.

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.


cctv

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 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. 

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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.”

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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