Two-thirds of drivers think ALR smart motorways compromise safety

29 Nov, 2019 8:37am Tristan Shale-Hester Hugo Griffiths

New data reveals concerns among the majority of drivers regarding the safety of all-lane running smart motorways

Two-thirds of drivers think all-lane running (ALR) smart motorways compromise safety, new data has revealed.

Some 68 per cent of motorists think ALR smart motorways, where the hard shoulder is used as a live lane, put drivers who break down at risk. So far, more than 100 miles of motorway have been converted to ALR, with motorists who break down expected to reach one of the emergency refuge areas, which are spaced up to 1.6 miles apart.

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Of the 1,753 drivers who responded to the RAC Report on Motoring survey, 72 per cent said they worry they would not be able to reach an emergency refuge area if they broke down on an ALR smart motorway - only 10 per cent weren’t worried about this, while 18 per cent were indifferent.

With regards to the spacing of smart motorway emergency refuge areas, 59 per cent said the minimum gap of 1.6 miles was too much - 13 per cent disagreed and 26 per cent didn’t express a view. Furthermore, 51 per cent said they would not know what to do if they broke down in a live lane and were not able to reach an emergency refuge area.

Some 77 per cent of those surveyed complained that breakdowns in live lanes cause congestion, although 55 per cent said ALR smart motorways are a cost-effective way of increasing road capacity.

The majority of respondents - 56 per cent to be precise - said they obeyed the variable speed limits on smart motorways, but 25 per cent claimed they did not. On this note, 65 per cent said they often see reduced speed limits on smart motorways that are in place for no apparent reason.

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Nicholas Lyes, head of roads policy at the RAC, commented: “We have consistently highlighted our concerns about this type of smart motorway to the Government, MPs and Highways England, so we hope these findings add further support to our calls for action. This is particularly relevant now, as the Secretary of State for Transport has committed to reviewing the safety data from smart motorways.

“We are calling on the Government to ensure the latest stopped vehicle detection technology is 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. We would also like to see these measures included in all smart motorway schemes that are currently being built or planned so we have a nationally consistent standard.”

He added: “It is imperative drivers have the confidence to know they will be protected from traffic in the event they suffer a breakdown in a live lane on an all-lane running motorway.”

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.

What is a smart motorway? 

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.

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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.

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. 


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.

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“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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