Smart motorway safety: ‘challenging’ new deadline for hitting stopped vehicle detection targets

National Highways confirms it aims to meet stopped vehicle detection targets by July amid ongoing safety concerns
(Composite: Kim MOgg/JPI Media)(Composite: Kim MOgg/JPI Media)
(Composite: Kim MOgg/JPI Media)

A “challenging” new deadline has been set for motorway operators to meet smart motorway safety targets.

The Office for Road and Rail demanded urgent action to protect road users after figures showed National Highways was missing targets around stopped vehicle detection in 2022. Now, the agency’s chief executive has confirmed it aims to hit the safety targets by July.

Nick Harris told MPs that stopped vehicle detection (SVD) technology was active on all sections of all-lane running (ALR) motorway and already contributing to improved safety but added that the agency was working to meet the “very challenging” performance specifications around detection and response times.

SVD uses radars to detect vehicles stopped on smart motorways which do not have a hard shoulder. The system then relies on a member of National Highways staff to verify the report and activate lane closed signs on the relevant stretch of road.

The ORR found that in four out of five regions the average time it took to detect stopped vehicles was longer than the target of 20 seconds, ranging from 43-65 seconds. It also reported that detection rates varied from 59.6% to 79.6%. National Highways’ target is 80%. The amount of false alerts was also higher than expected, increasing the workload for operators.

Harris told MPs on the committee: “It [SVD] is working and it is adding significantly to the tools that we have available to further improve road safety.

“I have a very, very closely-managed programme going on at the moment to ensure that the systems that we’ve already implemented – and we’re ongoing with commissioning new ones – will achieve the performance specification later this year. I think we’ve set July as the target for that.

“But this is the largest implementation of this technology in the world. We’re the first to be doing this. It’s an important addition to road safety and we’re very committed to getting it to that standard, but it is adding significantly to road safety at the moment.”

Around 10% of England’s motorway network is now smart motorway, where the hard shoulder is temporarily or permanently converted to a live traffic lane and variable speed limits are used to manage traffic flow. ALR are the government’s favoured type of smart motorway but new projects have been halted until more evidence is gathered on their safety.

Speaking after the evidence session, RAC road safety spokesman Simon Williams said SVD technology was “vital” but highlighted that it depended on the radar working properly, staff checking the carriageway and activating the red X closed lane sign, and drivers noticing and obeying the sign.

He said: “That’s a lot of separate things that have to happen in order to help protect a driver who has broken down, all of which are only necessary because the decision was taken to remove hard shoulders in the first place.

“It’s perhaps little wonder that 70% of drivers surveyed for the RAC Report on Motoring want to see all lane running smart motorways scrapped in favour of dynamic hard shoulder ones where the hard shoulder is only used as a running lane during busy periods.”

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