Smart motorway equipment failures spark safety concerns

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It has come to light that the equipment supporting England’s network of smart motorways regularly stopped functioning, putting drivers “at risk.”

From June 2022 to February 2024, there were 397 instances where the motorway network lost electricity, making it harder to identify when a car breaks down and potentially trap drivers in a live lane.

Important safety devices, such as CCTV, signals, and signs, were rendered inoperable for days at a period in several of the accidents.

The BBC was informed by a traffic officer employed by the network that they no longer deem it safe.

The charges have been refuted by National Highways, the organisation in charge of running the motorways.

Approximately half of England’s 400 miles of smart motorways lack a hard shoulder, which activists claim increases the risk of breakdowns.

The purpose of radar and cameras is to detect malfunctioning cars and direct traffic to a different lane. According to a study from the previous year, motorways without hard shoulders are three times more risky.

Data provided to the BBC’s Panorama shows that in June 2023, there were five days without any cameras, radars, signs, or signals at the M6 junction 18.

At the M62’s Junction 22, there were no signals, sensors, or CCTV for five days in September 2023.

Additionally, there were no sensors, signs, signals, or CCTV at M5 junction 6 for three and a half days in December 2023.

The network’s traffic officer stated that they no longer think the motorways are secure.

He said: “Sometimes it’s faulty. Sometimes they’re repairing something and they’ll turn it off. I don’t always know it’s off.”

Edmund King, the president of AA, stated that the outages put people’s lives in jeopardy.

Her said: “If you haven’t got that technology, it’s not even a basic motorway because you haven’t got the hard shoulder. It means that you’re playing Russian roulette with people’s lives.”

According to National Highways, smart motorways are the safest highways in Britain and that the radar identifies 89% of failures, meaning that 10% of breakdowns go unnoticed.

Since smart motorways were implemented in 2010, at least 79 people have died on them, and seven coroners have called for improvements.

In March 2019, Derek Jacobs, 83, lost his life after a car struck his van on the M1 near Sheffield. He had pulled over in the live inside lane and exited the vehicle due to a blowout tyre.

Charles Scripps, 78, the passenger in the front seat of the Ford Ka that collided with the van, passed away in a hospital two months following the accident.

Dashcam film showed the red car, driven by Mr. Scripps’s wife Jean, rolling over in the carriageway and landing on its side before being struck by a coach.

Concluding that both men died as a result of a road traffic collision, assistant coroner Susan Evans told Chesterfield Coroner’s Court: “Smart motorways are hugely controversial because of the lack of any hard shoulder for motorists to use in times of need such as occurred here.

“It is immediately apparent that, had there been a hard shoulder, this incident would not have occurred because Mr Jacobs would have been able to pull off the live lane entirely.”

In June 2019, a lorry struck and killed Jason Mercer and Alexandru Murgeanu on the M1 near junction 34. The two had stopped in the inner lane of the smart motorway section following a minor collision.

Sheffield coroner David Urpeth decided that Mr Mercer and Mr Murgeanu were unlawfully killed, and said: “I find, as a finding of fact, it is clear a lack of hard shoulder contributed to this tragedy.”

Jason’s widow Claire Mercer told Good Morning Britain that the new data is ‘terrifying’.

She said: “It is just terrifying to see it spelt out like that. To be honest, I think the situation has gotten a lot worse since that data was released.

“These outages spelt out and released to the media when they ask these questions. If that is what they release, what is actually going on because that is terrifying enough.

“Half of the equipment wasn’t even installed when my husband was killed.”

Nargis Begum, a mother of five, passed away in 2018 after a Mercedes struck her vehicle on the M1 north of Woodhall Services after she exited the passenger side.

Speaking outside court, Mr Mercer’s wife, Claire, who has spearheaded the campaign against smart motorways, said: “We had something before that was infallible. The hard shoulder was just always there and didn’t make mistakes and we’ve replaced it with something that isn’t always there and does make mistakes.

“And that was a conscious decision. They have designed danger into a smart motorway.

“This is the third inquest for a total of five people now, all within a very short stretch of motorway, all very similar in occurrence. And this is just the ones we know about.

“It keeps happened all around the country and nothing is changing.”

According to a December 2018 analysis, smart motorways without a hard shoulder have a three times higher fatality rate from breakdowns than those that have the safety lane.

The rate of “killed and serious injury” (KSI) events during breakdowns on smart motorways without a permanent hard shoulder has climbed by 10%, according to a study conducted by National Highways, the quango in charge of key highways.

After their hard shoulder was removed, three of the five schemes with five years’ worth of safety data saw an increase in KSI tragedies. These were M25 junctions 5–7, M1 junctions 39–42, and M6 junctions 11A–13.

According to the analysis, between 2017 and 2021, there were 0.07 major injuries or fatalities for every billion vehicle miles driven as a result of car breakdowns on “controlled” smart motorways, which have a hard shoulder that is always present.

However, the figure was 0.21, or three times higher, on “all-lane running” (ALR) smart motorways, where the hard shoulder is permanently converted into an additional lane of traffic.

This represents a rise from the previous five-year period of 0.19 from 2016 to 2020.

ALR smart motorways are also more than twice as deadly to break down on conventional motorways, with a number for breakdowns on these roads of 0.10.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak declared in April 2023 that he was stopping the construction of new smart motorways.

However, he refrained from completely eliminating the more than 400 miles of current roads that have had their hard shoulder removed.

National Highways Operational Control Director Andrew Page-Dove said: “Safety is our highest priority and our motorways are statistically some of the safest in the world, but there is still work to do as every death is a tragedy and every serious injury a life changed.

‘We need to help everyone feel confident when using smart motorways.

“They were introduced to provide extra capacity on some of our busiest and most congested sections of motorway, and the latest data shows that, overall, in terms of serious or fatal casualties, smart motorways are our safest roads.

“We are taking action to close the gap between how drivers feel and what the safety statistics show by increasing the number of emergency areas, delivering education campaigns, and improving the resilience of our operational technology systems.”

1 thought on “Smart motorway equipment failures spark safety concerns”

  1. Can we please stop spending our time and money on this – put the hard shoulders back and not spend on sensors and cameras and changing all the lanes and parking areas – so I can pay less road tax and there are less incidents !!! Sometimes the old ways work.

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