Smart motorways: breakdowns cause a month’s worth of lane closures

All-lane running section of M3 saw 945 hours of delays between August 2017 and October 2019 due to live lane breakdowns

Broken-down vehicles caused smart motorway lanes to be closed for more than a month over a two-year period, new research has revealed. 

From August 2017 to October 2019, motorway lanes were closed for 945 hours – equivalent to 39 days – between Junction 2 and Junction 4a of the M3 due to vehicles breaking down in a live lane, according to a Freedom of Information request to Highways England made by the AA.

• What is a smart motorway?

There were a total of 2,227 breakdowns on the stretch of all-lane running (ALR) smart motorways during the two-year period, with each one closing a lane for an average of 25 minutes.

Over the same period, there were 318 hours of delays caused by 271 traffic collisions, with lanes being closed for an average of one hour and 10 minutes each time.

Other issues – including obstructions, infrastructure defects and fires – contributed to a total of 2,802 incidents over the two-year period and saw motorway lanes close for a total of 1,451 hours – or 60 days.

Incident type

Number of incidents

Total time closed (hours:minutes.seconds)

Average closure time per incident (hours:minutes.seconds)

Breakdown

2,227

945:25.27

00:25.28

Traffic collision

271

318:44.12

01:10.34

Obstruction

158

67:52.10

00:25.46

Other

84

08:28.05

00:06.03

Infrastructure defect

17

46:19.29

02:43.30

Fire

15

45:45.36

02:51.02

Animal on network

12

04:30.30

00:22.32

Abandoned vehicle

10

08:41.37

00:52.10

Pedestrian on network

5

01:39.13

00:19.51

Spillage

1

00:01.00

00:01.00

Suicide/attempted suicide

1

00:11.00

00:11.00

Weather conditions

1

04:12.00

04:12.00

TOTAL

2,802

1451:50.19

00:25.37

The Department for Transport (DfT) is currently undertaking an evidence stock-take of smart motorways, which have been the subject of much controversy in recent weeks. The AA has called for this review to lead to:

• Double the number of emergency refuge areas (ERAs) by reducing their spacing from 1-1.5 miles to 0.75 miles and retrofit where practical.
• Retrofit the latest and best stopped vehicle detection system on all stretches of ALR as soon as possible.
• End dynamic hard shoulder schemes and on existing stretches revert to a permanent hard shoulder or ALR if adequate ERAs/SVD.
• Launch a major DfT Think! driver education programme with help from motoring organisations.
• Increased number of Highways England Traffic Officers and Regional Control Centre staff.
• Improve deployment and speed of Red X signs after notification of incident.

Edmund King, president of the AA, commented: “One of the main selling points of ‘smart’ motorways was to ease congestion, but the number of live lane stops and lane closures is undermining its effectiveness.

“While some lane closures are inevitable, many of the 2,200 breakdowns could have found a safer place to stop if there were more emergency laybys.

“Tailbacks build at a mile-a-minute, so lengthy lane closures mean unnecessary jams are created which adds to congestion. This further highlights the need for more emergency refuge areas.”

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A spokesperson for Highways England said: “This section of the M3 experienced congestion on a daily basis before the upgrade, and the number of delayed journeys has now dropped significantly, improving reliability overall. This adds up to more, better journeys being made on the M3 between junctions 2 and 4a.”

They added: “Smart motorways include a range of protection measures in place which are not present on other types of high-speed roads. These include sensors to detect the flow and speed of traffic, electronic signs to close lanes, display warning messages and slow down approaching traffic and 100 per cent CCTV coverage.

“In addition, across our network, in 2018-19 we exceeded our annual targets for keeping lanes open to traffic and the clearance of incidents within an hour.

Improving safety was not a “primary goal” for smart motorways, documents reveal

Improving road safety was not a “primary goal” when smart motorways were first introduced, according to a report produced in 2012 by the Highways Agency – Highways England’s predecessor – which considered the provision of additional emergency refuge areas (ERAs) surrounding a fatality hotspot on the M1 north of Nottingham.

The document stated: “The primary goals for the scheme do not include improving safety and the road user safety objective is to ensure that the scheme is no less safe than the safety baseline.”

The AA, which uncovered the document, criticised this goal for being “unambitious and complacent”.

The report shows the Highways Agency knew there was a risk that the number of vehicles stopping in live lanes would increase, and set out two options to mitigate this. The first would have seen the number of ERAs on the stretch of road increased from eight to 10 and an average spacing of 1,543 metres, at a cost of between £0.35m and £0.7m.

The second option was to increase the number of ERAs to 14 and an average spacing of 1,304 metres, costing £1m to £2m. The report said either of these options would result in a “small net decrease in risk to road users”, but in spite of this no action was taken.

With an average of 2,500 metres spacing, the Highways Agency estimated between 25.99 per cent and 26.1 per cent breakdowns would occur in live lanes; in reality, the current rate on such stretches is as high as 38 per cent.

According to the AA, there were five fatalities on the 16-mile stretch of the M1 between junctions 30 and 35a from September 2018 to December 2019.

Expansion of smart motorway network suspended

No new smart motorways will be opened until a comprehensive review of the current network is complete, the Transport Secretary announced.

Responding to a question in the House of Commons, Grant Shapps said: “The stretch of the M20 and all other stretches that are currently being worked on will not be opened until we have the outcome of the stocktake.”

Shapps also indicated smart motorways could be scrapped altogether if they are found to be less safe than conventional motorways with a permanent hard shoulder, saying: “The question is: are smart motorways less safe than the rest of the motorway network? For me, the answer is that we must make them at least as safe, if not safer, otherwise they can’t continue.”

Exclusive: Smart motorway speed cameras offer 60-second grace period

Drivers using smart motorways have 60 seconds to reduce their speed after a reduction in the variable speed limit is displayed on the overhead gantries, Auto Express can reveal. After the one-minute grace period, speed cameras start enforcement at the new signposted limit.

• UK speed cameras explained

Responding to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, Highways England – the Government-owned company that runs England’s Strategic Road Network of motorways and major A roads – confirmed that drivers are given a one-minute grace period.

“Following a change in the speed displayed by signals there is a 60-second ‘grace period’ before HADECS3 cameras start enforcement, giving time for drivers to adapt to the new mandatory speed limit, especially when speed limits are reduced due to slow-moving or queuing traffic up ahead,” the organisation said. “This gives drivers time to slow down and reduces the need for braking sharply.”

Smart motorways have a default speed limit of 70mph, but Highways England is able to lower the limit to 60, 50 or 40mph when operatives deem it necessary. When this happens, the new limit is displayed on overhead gantries and enforced by HADECS3 speed cameras, sometimes referred to colloquially as “stealth” cameras due to their being small, grey units that are much harder to spot than that larger yellow Gatso and Truvelo cameras used elsewhere.

Government to review smart motorways after 38 deaths in five years

The Government is to introduce a series of updates to the UK’s smart motorway network following the unearthing of accident statistics that show 38 people have lost their lives on the roads in five years. Data obtained from Highways England also shows there was a 20-fold increase in the number of “near-miss” incidents after a section of motorway was converted to “smart” running.

• Britain’s most dangerous roads revealed

The figures, uncovered by the BBC’s Panorama programme, found that in the five years prior to its conversion to smart motorway, one section of the M25 saw just 72 “near miss” incidents. In the five years after the road was converted into a smart motorway there were 1,485 near-miss incidents – defined as situations with “the potential to cause injury or ill health.”

The figures, obtained following freedom of information requests, also reveal there have been 38 deaths over five years on smart motorways – which comprise just 200 miles or so of the UK’s 2,300-mile motorway network.

Government smart motorway review

The BBC claims a Government review, launched towards the end of last year and due to be published soon, is to make a number of recommendations. The first is to end “dynamic” smart motorways, which see the hard shoulder opened and closed depending on traffic volume.

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The second recommendation is the building of more emergency refuge laybys on all-lane running motorways – roads with no hard shoulder at all.

The third recommendation, according to the BBC, will be that radar-based stopped vehicle detection (SVD) systems are installed across the entire smart motorway network within the next three years.

Edmund King, president of the AA, commented: “Too many corners have been cut in the interest of cost saving to move the goalposts from ERAs every 500m in the successful M42 pilot to every 2500m without consultation.”

Smart motorways: breakdown recovery firms won’t stop for vehicles in closed ‘red X’ lanes

Recovery firms are not allowed to stop and help motorists whose vehicles have broken down on smart motorway lanes that have been closed with ‘red X’ signs. Instead, staff from firms like the AA, Green Flag and RAC must wait for police or Highways England vehicles to physically close the lane or tow the vehicle to a refuge area, according to official guidance.

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The ‘best practice guidelines’ from the Survive Group – formed of senior police officers, Highways England and all major recovery firms – says breakdown operatives should “Never work in a live lane of a motorway lane unless the lane has been closed by a Police vehicle, HE [Highways England] Traffic Officer vehicle or Impact Protection Vehicle…Do not rely on a red X closure sign.”

While it is illegal to drive in closed ‘red X’ lanes, 180,000 drivers received warning letters in the 18 months between 2017 and summer 2018 for the offence – which is now enforced by cameras and results in three penalty points and a £100 fine. 

The news follows a damning Highways England report being unearthed by the AA, which found breaking down in the live lane of a smart motorway during off-peak hours is 216 per cent more dangerous than doing so on a conventional motorway.

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