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Smart Motorway stopped vehicle detection doesn't always work

Smart motorways don’t always detect broken down cars

Smart Motorway stopped vehicle detection doesn't always work

It’s been revealed that the Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) systems currently in use on the M25 and proposed for other smart motorways aren’t always effective. This is because it generates an “unmanageable amount of false alarms” when there is a high volume of traffic. 

According to documents obtained by The Sunday Times, there is no way to detect a stopped car when the volume of traffic exceeds a certain level. Similar issues occur when speeds drop to crawling pace. On average, drivers spend 17 minutes in live lanes before they are detected as being stationary. 

Smart motorways dangerous

In a letter, Britain’s chief highways engineer, Mike Wilson, wrote: “the density of traffic at higher volumes means it is very difficult to detect stopped lone vehicles without an unmanageable amount of false alarms”. This letter was contained within inquest documents pertaining to the case of Dev Naran, an eight-year-old killed in a collision on a smart section of the M6. He was in a stationary car hit by a lorry between junctions five and six.

“I remember the night the police officers came to tell me that Dev had died,” Dev’s mother said in a statement.

“Even they told me smart motorways are dangerous. Why won’t Highways England and the government accept the truth?”

Smart motorways dangerous

It seems that SVD isn’t the comprehensive solution that’s needed, even as the government moves to deploy it country-wide. At the moment, smart motorways aside from the M25 rely on a Motorway Incident Detection and Automatic Signalling (Midas) system.

At present, there are 13 ‘all lane running‘ sections of motorway where the hard shoulder has been removed, on the M1, M3, M5, M6 and M25. Nine were killed on the UK’s smart motorways last year. Five came within ten months on a section of the M1 near Sheffield.

How to use emergency refuge areas on smart motorways

Do you know how to use emergency refuge areas on smart motorways?

Emergency refuge areas are a safe haven for stranded vehicles on busy smart motorways – but alarmingly, more than half of motorists don’t know what they are or how to use them.

That’s according to research by the RAC, which surveyed 2,000 drivers and discovered that only 1.5 percent of respondents have ever used an emergency refuge area.

If you’re not familiar with emergency refuge areas, they’re similar to laybys and are located on stretches where the hard shoulder is sometimes open as a live lane on smart motorways.

They’re only meant to be used in an emergency – something 98 percent of motorists realise, according to the RAC’s research.

Did you know? 

What many drivers didn’t realise, however, is that you’re supposed to contact Highways England before rejoining the motorway if the hard shoulder is acting as a running lane.

If you didn’t know this, you’re not alone – just one respondent to the RAC’s survey did.

“It is essential that motorists understand how and when to use an emergency refuge area so they do not put their own safety and that of other road users at risk,” said the RAC’s chief engineer, David Bizley.

“Vehicles should pull up to the indicated mark on the tarmac or the emergency telephone and then the occupants should leave the vehicle from the passenger side.

“Everyone should stand behind the barriers and should use the emergency roadside telephone provided to speak to a Highways England representative.”

What is a smart motorway?

Smart motorways are becoming increasingly widespread – including sections of the M6, M25 and M1. They open up the hard shoulder as a live lane during busy periods to ease congestion, and control traffic flow using variable speed limits displayed on overhead gantries.

Emergency refuge areas are located on smart motorways and positioned every 1.5 miles with an emergency roadside phone available to request assistance. Cameras monitor the motorways and lanes can be remotely closed if required, for example if a vehicle breaks down.

Part-time hard shoulders are ‘too complicated’, says motorways boss

Dynamic smart motorways too confusing says Highways England chief

The chief executive of Highways England has described dynamic smart motorways as “too complicated for people to use”. Jim O’Sullivan made the statement to the Commons Transport Select Committee.

Dynamic smart motorways are those where the hard shoulder is used as an active lane during peak times. They account for 68 miles of the ‘smart’ network, while 135 miles use the ‘all lanes running’ system.

It’s the former that apparently causes problems for drivers, claims O’Sullivan. As a result, there are no plans to roll out the dynamic system further. And existing dynamic areas could be reverted to ‘all lanes running’ in future.

Dynamic smart motorways too confusing says Highways England chief

The RAC has called for a rapid standardisation of smart motorways across the UK, to avoid confusion among motorists.

We feel a decision should also be taken to standardise all smart motorways so drivers are not confused by the different types,” said RAC head of roads policy, Nicholas Lyes.

“At the moment there is a risk that some motorists use the hard shoulder when they shouldn’t, perhaps as a force of habit from doing so most days, because they tend to use these types of motorway at peak hours.”

RAC: concerns around ‘all lanes running’

Dynamic smart motorways too confusing says Highways England chief

The Highways England chief executive has conceded that dynamic hard shoulders prove too confusing for drivers. However, concerns remain around the ‘all lanes running’ system. The RAC worries that SOS areas are still too far apart – and that systems designed to recognise broken-down cars in active lanes are not available everywhere they should be.

“While Highways England feels smart motorways are safe, we know many drivers believe that removing the hard shoulder compromises safety for those who break down in a live lane,” said Mr Lyes.

“In early 2017 the Government claimed there was ‘good progress’ being made in making smart motorways safer by reducing the space between SOS areas, ensuring drivers comply with red X ‘closed lane’ signs and rolling out stopped vehicle detection technology.”

Dynamic smart motorways too confusing says Highways England chief

“Sadly, we understand that only a fifth of ‘all lane running stretches’ of smart motorway are currently benefiting from stopped vehicle detection technology which hardly constitutes a roll-out. We believe this technology needs to be retrofitted to all existing smart motorways as a matter of urgency.

“There has been a similar lack of progress in reducing the distance between SOS areas. Schemes currently under construction, and new ones being consulted on, still feature SOS areas at up to 2.5km apart as opposed to the lesser distance of 1.5km, which we believe Highways England had committed to.

“We strongly believe the Government should compel Highways England to make smart motorways as safe as possible by implementing these measures. Only then can drivers have sufficient confidence in using them knowing that all smart motorways are operating to a consistent safety standard, particularly in the event they break down on one.”

Smart motorways should be banned, says road safety group

Rex X smart motorways

A road safety organisation has joined the calls to put the brakes on the rollout of smart motorways.

Some argue the absence of a hard shoulder makes smart motorways more dangerous than conventional motorways – a claim disputed by Highways England.

It says journey reliability has improved by 22 percent and personal injury accidents have reduced by more than a half since the introduction of the first smart motorway in 2006.

But Gem Motoring Assist is calling for smart motorways to be banned until a proper safety review has been carried out. It’s also demanding more refuge areas to provide a safe haven for stranded motorists.

‘Proper safety review’ is required

Smart motorways dangerous

Gem road safety officer Neil Worth said: “Motorways may be the fastest roads we use, but they are statistically also the safest; and there are fewer collisions on motorways than on other roads.

“However, the high speeds used on motorways mean that when there is a crash, it is likely to be more serious. That’s why, on average, around one in 50 motorway collisions is fatal, compared with one in 70 on all other roads.

“We are also asking ministers and highways authorities specifically to call a halt to their rollout of smart motorways across the country until a proper review of safety has been completed and adequate refuge areas provided for drivers.

“In order to maximise safety, we also urge drivers to ensure they know the rules and signs relating to smart motorways, which are becoming more commonplace.”

‘Safest in the world’

Red X closed lanes smart motorway fines

Highways England insists smart motorways are safe and is investing around £3 billion in their rollout until 2020.

The agency faced criticism last month after a lorry ploughed into the back of a broken down vehicle in a stretch of hard shoulder being used as a live lane of the M1 near Chesterfield. 

When asked about the dangers of smart motorways, a spokesperson for Highways England told Derbyshire Live that it would “never carry out a major improvement scheme” without being confident in maintaining its roads as “among the very safest in the world”.

“Smart motorways are good for drivers, adding vital extra lanes to some of our busiest motorways and making journeys safer and more reliable. As with other roads, we monitor the safety performance of smart motorways and are rolling out enhancements to improve the road user experience.“

Click here for our guide to driving on a smart motorway.

Highways England responds

Highways England has responded, saying its own assessment shows that accident and injury figures are falling. Collisions and casualties are, it says, 4.3 and 5.9 percent lower respectively than in 2017.Motorway speed limit 80

Emergency areas, slip-road hard shoulders and other places to stop in emergencies are located at least every 1.5 miles on all-lane running stretches of motorway. Highways England reiterated its commitment to reducing that distance to one mile from 2020.

“Safety is the top priority for Highways England and we urge everyone who uses our roads to make it theirs, too,” said Highways England head of road safety, Richard Leonard.

“Any death, on any type of road, is one too many. We’re working hard to improve England’s motorways and A-roads and we need your help. We all have a role to play to make sure we all get home, safe and well and we’re asking all drivers to make their own safety, and that of other people, the most important thing to think about when they travel. Remember to check your vehicle, obey all signs and think about other drivers.”

Smart motorways in Yorkshire to get safety improvements

Smart motorway emergency area upgrades

Emergency areas on smart motorways in Yorkshire will get a makeover to improve safety. The upgrades will involve extra signs to show drivers the distance to the next emergency area. Each area will also get a marked-out box showing where it’s best to stop.

The aim is to make things clearer for drivers and help recovery teams sent to help those using the emergency areas.

Highways England also wants to ensure drivers are discouraged from using these areas when the situation doesn’t call for it.

Smart motorway emergency area upgrades

These changes are due to roll out on the M1 between junctions 28 (Alfreton, Derbyshire) and 35a (Stocksbridge bypass), plus 39 and 42 (Denby Dale).

They will also be seen on the M62 between junctions 25 (Rothwell) and 30 (Brighouse). There are 56 emergency areas within these sections of road that will receive the upgrades. 

Overall, Highways England plans to enhance 347 emergency areas, with 150 upgraded so far. Future emergency areas will be closer together, too. At present, they come every mile and a half. Those constructed from 2020 will have no more than a mile of road between them. 

“We recognise that as well as being safe, drivers want to feel safe and we have and will continue to make some changes to the design of motorways,” said Paul Unwin of Highways England.

Smart motorway emergency area upgrades

“This includes making emergency areas more visible by making them bright orange which should also discourage drivers from using them in non-emergency situations.”

Explained: Smart motorway emergency areas

Smart motorways effectively turn hard shoulder lanes into active lanes when they’re not needed for emergencies. Emergency areas are a partial layby even further out to the left.

They’re designed as a refuge for cars that need to stop, offering the instant protection that an active hard shoulder can’t.

Smart motorway emergency area upgrades

Each area has an SOS phone that drivers must use to speak with a Highways England employee, before re-joining the motorway if they’re able. Traffic officers can be dispatched to help them get back on the road.

“Smart motorways are as safe as traditional motorways, which are already among the safest roads in the world,” Unwin continues. 

“These redesigned emergency areas support our drive to improve awareness of smart motorway driving as part of our planned programme of work, including what to do in an emergency and when to use an emergency area.”

PROOF that smart motorway cameras are always on

Smart motorway cameras always on

If you wanted proof that smart motorway speed cameras are always ON, even when the gantries are off, you’ve got it. Here are pictures of a Honda Integra Type R owner getting flashed under gantries that are ‘switched off’.

The driver was a customer of Tegiwa Imports. In a Facebook post, the company said “it’s the first time we’ve seen this happen. One of our good customers recently got busted by a speed camera (HADECS 3 type) on a smart motorway without a speed being displayed on the gantry!

“Luckily he wasn’t going too fast and only received a speed awareness course.”

Smart motorway cameras always on

As you can see, his speed was 82mph, so he was well above the legal motorway speed limit. That he got flashed by a camera would ordinarily come as no surprise.

What’s curious about this is the debate surrounding smart motorway cameras. Specifically, whether they operate when a speed, or any other sign, isn’t displayed on the smart gantries. Here is undeniable proof that they’re on.

Speed cameras in the UK: the truth

Speed cameras UK

We’ve previously published a piece taking apart the myth of smart motorway cameras, as well as details on exactly how speed cameras in the UK work. A few key points are worth repeating.

Treat all cameras as if they’re always on

To assume that a camera is off when the associated displays are on seems daft. A blank display doesn’t mean there are no limits in place, so why would the camera turn off? A word to the wise: treat any and all cameras as if they’re on.

Speed cameras UK

You won’t get tagged at 72

There was a rumour that motorway speed cameras would get you at 72. While you should always stick to prescribed speed limits, this isn’t the case. There is leniency based on discrepancies in indicated speed.

Tolerances – ten percent at most

The official line is that you should stick to prescribed speed limits. For those that don’t want to take that advice, heed our warning: you’ve got ten percent on top of the speed limit, with two or three miles per hour on. Our advice is stick to the ten percent if you must exceed the limits. That’s 55, 66, 77.

Like the gentleman in the 82mph Integra Type R, venture too far beyond and you’ll be made the example.

Recovery workers offered smart motorway training

Smart motorway training for recovery operators

Roadside rescue and recovery operators are to be offered smart motorway training in a bid to improve safety. 

The new course – the Smart Motorways Awareness For The Roadside Rescue & Recovery Industry – is the first of its kind and has been developed by Highways England and the Network Training Partnership.

Operators will receive guidance on how to attend breakdowns or collisions on the smart motorway network.

In August, Highways England data revealed that breaking down in a live lane on an all-lane-running smart motorway is 216 percent more dangerous than doing so on a conventional motorway with a hard shoulder.

Earlier this month, we reported that the widow of a man killed on the M1 is suing Highways England, claiming the smart motorway is directly responsible for his death.

The one-day course will cover the working methods that enable recovery operatives to carry out their roles safely. Key principles include:

  • Operators are NEVER expected to recover a vehicle in a live lane on a smart motorway.
  • Highways England can close lanes and set speed limits to support recovery operators.
  • Highways England can allocate traffic officers or call the emergency services to maintain safety.

‘Developed specifically for roadside rescue and recovery drivers’

car breakdown

Colin Stevenson, strategic partnership manager at Highways England, said: “The course has been developed specifically for roadside rescue and recovery drivers who use the motorway network and has been designed to aid practical, relevant training.

“Those completing the course will have a better understanding of the different types of smart motorways and how to formulate a recovery plan incorporating safe working practices when dealing with incidents on smart motorways.”

Chris Hoare, chairman of the Institute of Vehicle Recovery, added: “The Institute of Vehicle Recovery (IVR) has given its backing to the new smart motorways recovery vehicle awareness course, which gives all in the recovery industry a greater awareness of some of the additional considerations when working on a smart motorway.

“IVR’s previous collaborations with HE and other agencies produced the Life on the Edge 7 film and the SURVIVE Safety Rules, both of which are incorporated in the course. This collaborative approach of sharing best practice to deliver clear consistent messages, raises standards and ultimately provides a safer working environment for those operating in the vehicle recovery sector.”

Anyone wishing to enrol on the course should email Highways England.

Over half of us AVOID open hard shoulders on smart motorways

Smart motorway hard shoulder

New research has shed some light on motorists’ understanding of how hard shoulders on smart motorways work. 

The headline revelation is that a massive 56 percent of British drivers AVOID driving on the hard shoulder of smart motorways. Yes, even when signs say they’re open. That represents 23.1 million UK drivers.

Why are drivers avoiding smart motorway hard shoulders?

How to drive on a smart motorway

So why are so many of us avoiding hard shoulders even when we’re allowed to use them? Well, perhaps predictably, it’s because we’re not sure if we are. Almost one in three motorists said that they felt uncertain about whether hard shoulders were open. 

One in four were reluctant to use them even when they knew the lane was open, over fears about there being stationary cars in the way. 

There are other safety-related concerns, too. 15 percent said they don’t like driving so close to the verge. Another 15 percent said they were worried about debrit in the hard shoulder lane.

14 percent said they were concerned about the lack of an escape lane, should they need to take evasive action. 

Smart motorways: a lack of understanding

Smart motorways dangerous

In terms of understanding the signage, we’re not in great shape. Less than a third said they were able to correctly identify an open hard shoulder using smart motorway signage. 20 percent of drivers said that they had no idea when a hard shoulder was in use. 

Just 42 percent correctly understood gantry signs direct when you can drive in the hard shoulder on smart motorways. Only 29 percent correctly said that a speed limit sign over a hard shoulder indicated it was in use. Surprisingly, 13 percent said you can never use the hard shoulder.

Worryingly, 15 percent said that a blank sign meant that it was open. The opposite is, in fact, true.

“These findings reflect the concerns and uncertainty that many drivers have when driving on smart motorways,” said Roger Griggs, communications director of Kwik Fit.

Smart motorway hard shoulder

“It’s clear that if many drivers are avoiding using the hard shoulder when it’s open, then the extra capacity which smart motorways are designed to provide is not being utilised properly and we will end up being in a worse position than with the original road layout.

“It is vital that there is a nationwide information campaign to ensure that drivers fully understand when they can and cannot use the hard shoulder if smart motorways are to be accepted by drivers and provide a way to ease congestion – something we need desperately.”

Widow to sue Highways England over death on ‘smart’ motorway

Smart motorways dangerous

The widow of a man killed on the M1 is suing Highways England, claiming the ‘smart’ motorway system is directly responsible for his death.

“Removing the hard shoulder robbed my husband… of a safe refuge,” Mrs Mercer told the Sunday Telegraph.

“Police told me the lane was not closed after they became stranded. If it had been, they would be alive today.

“Two people died that day. Two families have been utterly devastated because the hard shoulder had been turned into a live lane. It’s that simple.”

Smart motorways dangerous

Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu were hit by a lorry on the M1, having pulled over to exchange insurance details following a prang.

Mrs Mercer wants to prove that Highways England’s removal of permanent hard shoulders without constant protection for stopped drivers is a breach of the organisation’s duty to make motorways safer. If successful, Highways England will technically be guilty of corporate manslaughter.

These aren’t the only deaths of this kind to have occurred on this stretch of the M1, between Woodall services and Meadowhall. In the past year, two other drivers were lost in similar circumstances.

The issue with ‘smart’ motorways

Smart motorways dangerous

Smart motorways work by effectively turning hard shoulder sections into live lanes, only shutting them and turning specific sections into a hard shoulder when needed.

This is done via the use of light-up gantries that display a red ‘X’ over lanes that are blocked, to let people know not to drive in them.

Red X closed lanes smart motorway fines

In this case, the lane was potentially not closed in time. Indeed, it’s reported that CCTV operators take an average of 20 minutes to spot stranded or stopped vehicles.

Highways England plans to make 788 miles of motorway ‘smart’ by 2025, compared with the 416 there are today. 

‘No plans’ for smart M5 motorway in Somerset

No plans for smart M5 motorway

Highways England says it has “no current plans” to turn the M5 into a smart motorway in Somerset.

The section between Junction 25 at Taunton and Junction 15 for the M4 motorway is a notorious traffic blackspot, especially during the summer. 

A smart motorway is a technology-enabled section of motorway that uses traffic management methods to control the flow of traffic and reduce congestion.

In some cases, the hard shoulder is used as a ‘live’ running lane to increase capacity, along with variable speed restrictions to maintain a smooth flow of traffic.

Previously, Sedgemoor District Council said it would phase in smart technology to cut congestion and increase capacity at peak times.

‘Address existing and future congestion’

Traffic on M5 motorway

The Sedgemoor Transport Strategy document outlined the council’s plans for the road network until the year 2050, including “improvements to address existing and future congestion and resilience issues along the M5 motorway”.

“The Council will also promote smart motorways proposals on the M5 which would use digital technology to better monitor traffic levels and implement hard shoulder running, variable speed limits, or even close lanes remotely via gantry signage if accidents have occurred.”

“The District will be seeking full implementation of smart motorway infrastructure along the M5 corridor,” it said.

But Highways England has ruled it out, which could be bad news for local residents and the thousands of holidaymakers who use the M5 every summer.

‘No current plans’

M5 motorway sign

Rebecca Edmond, head of south west planning and development for Highways England, said: “There are no current plans to introduce a smart motorway to the Sedgemoor section of the M5.

“We are, though, finalising designs to bring more technological benefits to drivers between Junction 23 (Bridgwater) and Junction 25 (Taunton), a part of the motorway which currently suffers from delays.”

Highways England is installing a driver information and queue protection scheme between Junctions 17 and 18, and plans to introduce a similar scheme between Junctions 23 and 25 later this year.

“The scheme will give our South West Regional Operations Centre greater visibility of this area of the network,” added Edmond, “and it means we’ll be able to better detect incidents and then let drivers know so they can make informed choices about their journeys.”

Last week, Highways England announced that it will remove 480 miles of roadworks over the August bank holiday weekend.