Smart motorways: Live lane breakdowns cause over a month’s worth of delays on M3 over two years

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

Live lane breakdowns caused more than a month’s worth of delays on an all-lane running (ALR) section of motorway over a two-year period.

From August 2017 to October 2019, there were 945 hours of disruption 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 that’s been uncovered by the AA.

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There were a total of 2,227 breakdowns on the stretch of 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 a total of 1,451 hours of disruption.

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.”

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

The news of live lane breakdowns causing more than a month’s worth of delays comes a few weeks after an uncovered document revealed that improving road safety was not a “primary goal” when smart motorways were first introduced to the UK road network.

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In 2012 the Highways Agency, Highways England’s predecessor, produced a report that considered the provision of additional emergency refuge areas (ERAs) surrounding a fatality hotspot on the M1 smart motorway 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 when it comes to the crucial safety of the motorway”.

The report shows that 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.

Furthermore, today’s data shows that the Highways Agency significantly underestimated the likely percentage of breakdowns in live lanes depending on spacing.

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With an average of 2,500 metres spacing, the organisation 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.

Edmund King, president of the AA, commented: “This report is yet more damning evidence that the higher risks of more live lane stops if emergency refuges areas were further apart was known at the time.

Expansion of smart motorway network suspended

No new smart motorways will be opened until a “stocktake” of the current network is complete, the Transport Secretary has 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.” The stocktake in question is a comprehensive review of the roads, launched following longstanding pressure from safety groups, steeply increasing “near miss” incidents, and 38 deaths on smart motorways over five years.

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Mr Shapps’ comments, reported by The Times, follow a long-running campaign by groups including the AA to stop, or at least significantly alter, smart motorways. Criticisms include emergency refuge areas that are up to two miles apart instead of the 500 metres originally proposed; malfunctioning and sparsely placed radar detection systems designed to spot broken-down vehicles; and the fact operators take an average of 17 minutes to spot drivers stranded in live lanes an areas without radar, with drivers waiting another 17 minutes to be rescued.

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.”

Proponents of the schemes – which see hard shoulders either permanently or temporarily turned into live traffic lanes – highlight motorways remain the safest type of road in the country and that they increase traffic capacity for a fraction of the cost of motorway expansion. 

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 1 minute grace period, speed cameras start enforcement at the new signposted limit.

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.

Jack Cousens, head of roads policy at the AA, commented: “This discovery by Auto Express will reassure drivers passing under motorway gantries just as they’ve reduced the limit that a nasty letter won’t be in the post to them.

“A 60-second grace period seems sensible and allows more than enough time for drivers further back to slow down safely.”

Government to review smart motorways after 38 deaths in five years

The news of the 60-second grace period for smart motorway speed cameras comes shortly after the Government announced it will introduce a series of updates to the UK’s smart motorway network. These updates come 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.

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.

Following the investigation, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told the BBC: “We absolutely have to have these as safe or safer than regular motorways or we shouldn’t have them at all.”

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. 

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.

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Edmund King, president of the AA and a long-time campaigner for better smart motorway safety, said: “There is much confusion and fear out there. If the Government is not going back to the drawing board to reinstate the hard shoulder, then the least they can do is to double the number of emergency refuge areas to every three-quarters of a mile. The current system is not fit for purpose and too many tragic and avoidable deaths are occurring.”

King highlighted that when smart motorways were trialled on the M42 in 2010, there were emergency refuge areas (ERAs) every 500 metres – while on some sections of the current network over two miles separate ERAs.

“It is no consolation to the grieving families when the Government repeats that these smart motorways are as safe as conventional motorways when we know better design would result in fewer deaths. 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.”
The RAC’s head of roads policy, Nicholas Lyes, echoed King’s concern, though warned there may be stopped vehicle detection systems: “A commitment to install stopped vehicle detection technology on the whole smart motorway network would be a welcome step… However, three years to install this across the network is a long time to wait and questions must be asked as to why this hasn’t already been rolled out universally to date.”

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.

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.”

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The recommendations mean the organisations involved in drafting the guidelines consider closed lanes on all-lane-running smart motorways too dangerous a place for breakdown operatives to work, even when red X signs on overhead gantries have informed motorists they must use other lanes.

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 revelation that breakdown firms are not allowed to stop in ‘red X’ lanes is the latest in a slew of controversies related to smart motorways. In September last year accident data revealed the number of fatal motorway collisions increased by a fifth in 2018 compared to 2017.

A damning report written for Highways England and unearthed by the AA, meanwhile, 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.

Proponents of smart motorways – which are a cost-effective way of increasing traffic capacity compared to expanding or building new roads – highlight that motorways remain the safest type of road in the country, and also cite evidence that smart motorways are safer than conventional motorways in other respects.

That hasn’t stopped Transport Secretary Grant Shapps ordering an investigation into the roads, however, having told MPs: “we know people are dying on smart motorways”.

Do you think roads are getting more dangerous? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below…

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