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Smart motorways – fit for purpose?


A recent Office of Rail and Road (ORR) report confirms that one third of stranded vehicles on ‘all lane running’ (ALR) smart motorways are not detected. Is the smart motorway ‘stopped vehicle detection’ (SVD) system fit for purpose?

SVD technology is a radar-based technology that now exists on every ALR smart motorway where the hard shoulder has been permanently converted to allow a live traffic lane.

There are currently three types of motorways:

    (i)   Controlled – which retain the conventional motorway configuration, including retaining the hard shoulder, but also have additional technology to include variable and mandatory speed limits to control the speed of traffic and overhead electronic signs to display messages to drivers.

   (ii)   All Lane Running (ALR) – which apply controlled motorway technology, but permanently convert the hard shoulder to a live running lane, increasing the capacity of the motorway. ALR motorways have emergency areas and all now have SVD technology.

   (iii)   Dynamic Hard Shoulder (DHS) – which apply controlled motorway technology, but temporarily increase capacity by utilising the hard shoulder as a live running lane at peak times.

The rollout of smart motorways was paused in 2022 by the government due to safety concerns. The government paused the building of any further ALR motorways and committed to installing SVD technology on every existing ALR smart motorway by March 2023. This target was achieved by September 2022.

However, a recent report published by the ORR reveals that the actual performance of SVD technology has fallen short of the performance requirements that National Highways, in fact, set itself. 

National Highways is the government-owned company responsible for the strategic road network, which comprises motorways and major A roads in England. The ORR is responsible for holding National Highways to account for delivering the UK government’s priorities for the strategic road network (SRN).

The first annual assessment report from the ORR of safety performance on the SRN, urges National Highways to “urgently” improve the technology that detects stranded vehicles on an ALR motorway. The report reveals that a third of broken down vehicles are missed and that false detection rates of broken down vehicles are too high.

National Highways is seeking rapid improvements to SVD technology to achieve the required performance levels by the end of June 2023.

The ORR reports that although the rollout of SVD on all ALR smart motorways was achieved ahead of schedule in response to the action plan target, which aims to reduce the duration of live lane stops, the increased pace of delivery has resulted in National Highways failing to allow itself sufficient opportunity to apply lessons learnt.

False detection rates across all National Highways’ regions are substantially above the organisation’s own specification that false alerts should not constitute more than 15% of all alerts. Performance ranged from 63.8% to 83.5% across the regions. This creates an unnecessary and extra workload for operators and potentially undermines drivers’ confidence in the system. False alerts automatically trigger ‘Report of Obstruction’ messages on variable message signboards and could lead to real alerts being missed.

National Highways’ target detection rate is not as some might assume 100%, but rather 80%. Nevertheless, none of the National Highways’ regions have reached this requirement. The report confirms that detection rates range from between 59.6% and 79.6%.

The required target for the average time to detect stopped vehicles in less than 20 seconds has also been missed. Of those vehicles detected, four out of five of the National Highways’ regions are not reaching this requirement, but rather taking between 43 and 65 seconds to detect a stopped vehicle.

Every second counts in any situation where a stranded vehicle is stationary in a live motorway lane with the majority of passing traffic travelling at 70mph.

National Highways Chief Executive Nick Harris, said when reacting to the report: “We know there is more we can do to further improve safety …“.

The Chair of the Transport Committee, which has previously highlighted concerns about smart motorways, commented: “The statistics revealed (by the ORR) raise considerable concerns about the performance of National Highways in protecting drivers on smart motorways. This is putting lives at risk. The idea that in some regions … less than 60% of stopped vehicles were detected on smart motorways is chilling … the fact that in some areas it took over 60 seconds for a stopped vehicle to be detected is also deeply concerning.”

In the meantime, drivers and their passengers continue to lose their lives on smart motorways.

There was a collision in May 2022 involving a crash on a smart motorway section of the M3 when the SVD system failed to distinguish between a lorry that had stopped under a bridge and the bridge and a van ran into the back of the lorry. In response to this incident, Nick Harris was reported in The Times maintaining that he had “absolute faith in the system” and that “the incident falls into the 20%”.

“We are very clear about the specification of (SVD) which is that it is to spot at least 80% of stopped vehicles, not 100%.”

The ORR report now establishes that National Highways is not even achieving its own benchmark.

These are not simple statistics, but real life tragedies. One recent example of such concerns the case of Nardis Begum (deceased).

In September 2022 Doncaster Coroner’s Court resumed an inquest into the death of Nardis Begum, a passenger occupant in a vehicle who was killed after her car broke down on a stretch of the M1 with no hard shoulder on 9 September 2018. Mrs Begum was killed after her stationary vehicle was struck by another vehicle. The deceased’s vehicle had been stranded for over 16 minutes before the fatal collision.

A National Highways Traffic Officer giving evidence during the inquest said he saw drivers stranded on smart motorways on a daily basis. The officer who has been patrolling roads for National Highways in Yorkshire for 17 years offered one example of having seen seven cars break down in a live lane in one day. He comments that he believed emergency refuges on smart motorways were “not close enough together” and “there are not enough of them”.

The coroner ruled that the lack of a hard shoulder contributed to the death of the deceased.

The coroner additionally expressed her concern that in excess of 150 vehicles passed the stricken vehicle and that none of the occupants within those vehicles reported the presence of a stationary vehicle to any relevant agency.

The coroner expressed concern that members of the public appeared to wrongly believe that the dozens of cameras which are in place on smart motorways were being constantly monitored by control room staff.

National Highways Chief Executive Nick Harris, told the coroner that this was not practicable.

In response to the coroner’s findings AA President Edmund King commented “… roads should not be designed with the lives of drivers dependent on other drivers reporting a breakdown in a live lane”.

It is clear that National Highways is conscious that at the very least, the SVD system requires improvement. In the knowledge that it is not meeting its own targets, one would hope that National Highways would suitably mitigate the risk to road users.

It appears to the writer that the AA President’s response to the recent ORR report is a sensible temporary measure to mitigate risk until the required improvements are made.

In response to the report, AA President Edmund King said that “… for smart motorways to be truly smart and safe then the technology behind them must be fully effective”.

He further stated: “If there are doubts about the technology then the motorways are not smart and we should revert to tried and tested methods.

“National Highways need to urgently rectify the situation, but until such time we call on the Transport Secretary to run a pilot scheme which will reinstate the inside lane as a hard shoulder with a red ‘X’' and runs a national lane discipline campaign aimed at the ‘middle lane hogs’ in conjunction with the police, to get better use out of the capacity of the motorway and to make the network safer. At the same time, there needs to be a rapid retrofit of emergency laybys, so no-one is too far away from a place of safety.”

In 2021 1,857 people were killed or seriously injured on the SRN, an increase of 424 (29.6%) compared to 2020. The ORR identified in the report that “there is a risk that the number of casualties could increase if, as expected, traffic levels rise further in 2022 as traffic numbers were still affected by the pandemic in 2021”.

Tim Ingram

Tim Ingram


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