19,000 drivers break down in live motorway lanes over two years

HIghways England data reveals an average of 26 cars a day break down in live lanes on all-lane running motorways

Over two dozen vehicles a day broke down in live lanes of all-lane running motorways over the past two years, fresh data from Highways England has revealed.

A letter to the Transport Committee written by the organisation’s chief executive, Jim O’Sullivan, revealed 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. 

Previous data from the government-owned company responsible for England’s motorways revealed it takes operatives an average of 17 minutes to spot broken-down drivers in areas not covered by stoped vehicle detection systems.

O’Sullivan cited evidence that smart motorways, and ALR schemes in particular, are safer than conventional motorways, with a “fatal and weighted injuries” rate of 0.5 per hundred million vehicles on conventional sections of motorway comparing with a rate of 0.36 after sections of the M25 had been converted to ALR for three years.

“We recognise that safety is not just about being safe”, O’Sullivan said. “We want everyone who travels or works on our roads to feel safe. We will continue to work with road users, motoring groups and the recovery industry on these importand issues.”

These latest statistics come following weeks of scrutiny over motorway safety, with previous data showing the number of fatalities across the UK’s motorway network were up by almost a fifth last year compared to 2017.

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.

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 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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