When will motorways be truly smart?


All lane running smart motorways are very much in the news, with the focus on how safe they are and how effectively Highways England is closing lanes to protect drivers stopped in live lanes that were previously the hard shoulder.

At the recent bank holiday weekend, I had my own – thankfully mainly vicarious – experience, which was already ringing alarm bells, so to speak, before the AA highlighted its own research into the issue.

Just before 11 on the Saturday morning, I was driving with a passenger up the M1 to Leeds. Towards the end of the journey, on an all lane running section of the motorway just south of the M62, I noticed that vehicles in the inside running lane were pulling out to avoid a van, which seemed to be half on and half off the carriageway.

I had seen no warning of this – no red Xs closing the inside lane.

Most all lane running schemes rely on cctv

Having written for Highways magazine about the vulnerability of vehicles stopped in live lanes, I was aware of the danger. I’ve also been to a few talks where Highways England chief executive Jim O’Sullivan exhorts his audience to put the company’s number - 0300 123 5000 – into their phones, so it is in mine.

I asked my passenger to use my phone to call Highways England. They were reluctant but agreed to do so when I said it could save someone’s life. After a short delay, they told Highways England of the vehicle in the live lane. Again, they didn’t seem to be aware of it at the time.

Highways England subsequently told me that its regional control room confirmed that signals were set once the police alerted them to the incident, which was at 10.55am. My call was at 10.53am so the two were more or less simultaneous.

The government-owned company also suggested that the best thing to do for someone witnessing an incident is the same as for a dangerously stranded driver – to dial 999 – but its online guidance on how to drive on a smart motorway does not make this entirely clear.

But the main point is that Highways England needed third parties to inform it of the incident and close the lane.

Its guidance page states: ‘Our regional control centres use CCTV cameras to monitor and manage our motorways. Once they’re aware of your situation (via CCTV or the police), they can set overhead signs and close the lane to help keep traffic away from you.’

This is where the AA comes in. It pointed out, as Highways has pointed out, that only a fraction of the all lane running schemes have a radar system that can detect stationary vehicles and that in their absence it can take an average of 17 minutes for Highways England to detect a stopped vehicle in a live lane.

It doesn’t help, the AA said, that CCTV cameras might be pointed in the wrong direction at the time of an incident.

In my Highways article, I noted that two fatalities had occurred on all lane running stretches of the M1 in the last year where vehicles have driven into stationary vehicles in live lanes. It is unclear whether red Xs (which have a relatively low compliance rate) had been used to close those lanes.

This last weekend, it was revealed that the widow of a driver, Jason Mercer, who was killed in a crash on a smart motorway is to sue Highways England for corporate manslaughter.

The incident, which was also on the M1, also cost the life of another driver, Alexandru Murgeanu. The men had stopped to exchange insurance details after a minor collision. The paper quotes Clare Mercer as saying that the police told her the lane was not closed.

The 17 minutes statistic cited by the AA actually comes from a Highways Englang report on the benefits of using stationary (or stopped) vehicle detection (SVD). That report concludes that ‘the positive benefits exceed the costs of the implementation when the overall duration of each stopped vehicle incident is reduced because the incident is detected more quickly’, which is what SVD does, all other things being equal.

In cash terms, the benefit cost ratio (BCR) ‘improves with size of scheme’, with a BCR of 1.42 for a 20 km scheme versus 1.72 for 100km. These are of course human lives and serious injuries we are talking about.

Highways England said last week that it agrees that SVD works and is ‘being designed into all the smart motorway projects that we start constructing from next year’, ie the second Road Investment Strategy.

As far as existing schemes are concerned, although work is underway on installing SVD on the M3 in Surrey and Hampshire, Highways England said it is only ‘looking how we could provide the same benefits on all our other recently opened smart motorway upgrades’.

This lack of a commitment suggests that Highways England is not going to be installing SVD on the M1 anytime soon and there also appears to be no commitment at all to install SVD on schemes currently under construction - including a £373m scheme covering a further 37.9km  of the M1 involving ‘low light/infrared CCTV cameras to provide 100% coverage’.

In its answer to the AA’s Freedom of Information request, Highways England said its ‘commitment is that all ALR schemes will have SVD capability’. It also said: ‘For the remaining ALR schemes which are in design or construction, or are now in operation we are looking at alternative solutions as technology capability continues to advance.’

The apparent contradiction may be resolved by the possibility that ‘alternative solutions’ may still detect stationary vehicles without being strictly labelled ‘SVD’, but again the impression is that we should not hold our breath waiting for this truly smart capability to be used across what Highways England calls ‘smart motorways’, irrespective of whether it is in place.

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