In Depth

How safe are smart motorways?

Investigation suggests technical failings are putting lives at risk

An investigation by the Daily Mail says it has revealed a series of life-threatening safety failures in one of the UK’s smart motorways’ control rooms.

After spending six weeks undercover at the South Mimms regional operations centre in Hertfordshire, a Mail reporter discovered “alarming problems” with the “killer roads”, the newspaper said. Fatal crashes have not been caught on CCTV cameras because of software failures and “faulty or misplaced technology”, it said.

Many of the footage feeds in the National Highways control room showed “clouds, the ground or the message ‘no input available’” rather than the roads, it was reported. And more than one in ten of the motorways’ safety cameras were said to be “broken, misted up or facing the wrong way” during the reporter's undercover stint.

CCTV is one of the four “trusted sources” that allow the National Highways staff to close a motorway lane, with the others including highways staff, police officers and contractors, the paper explained. But on the day of the paper’s audit, 17 September, “almost half the cameras on one of the busiest stretches of the M25 were failing”. 

According to one control room operator, “the safety systems had previously gone down for an entire eight-hour shift”. In one incident, an employee is reported to have said, “We’ve got no signals, you’re all going to die.”

The investigation will “pile pressure on ministers to reinstate the hard shoulder”, with the Department of Transport yesterday ordering an inquiry into the findings. 

While National Highways has said it does not recognise the Mail’s figures, its chief executive Nick Harris, who was appointed last month, said that an investigation into the allegations was being conducted as “a matter of urgency”. 

What are smart motorways?

First trialled in the West Midlands in 2006, smart motorways use a series of scanners and cameras to respond in real-time to keep traffic moving when there is congestion, roadworks, traffic jams and accidents. However, the term “smart motorway” wasn’t coined until 2013.

There are three types of smart motorway, which the AA lists as motorways:

  • Controlled motorway: multiple lanes, variable speed limits and a hard shoulder for “emergencies only”.
  • Dynamic hard shoulder - variable speed limits and a hard shoulder that can be turned into a fourth lane when needed. Drivers are told via electric overhead signs to use the hard shoulder during peak hours. 
  • All lanes running - variable speed limits and a permanent fourth lane instead of a hard shoulder. Emergency refuge areas are found every 2.5km or 1.6km. 

The aim of these roads is to keep traffic smoothly flowing, with variable speed limits to help control traffic jams or rush hour surges. 

Where are they?

England’s smart motorways cover a total of more than 400 miles. According to Highways England, the smart motorway sections can be found on the following highways:

  • M1 (Watford, London, to Leeds, West Yorkshire - J6a to 13, J16 to 19, J23a to 25, J28 to 35a, J39 to 42)
  • M3 (Sunbury-on-Thames, Surrey, to Southampton, Hampshire - J2 to 4a)
  • M4 to M5 interchange (Chiswick, London, to Swansea, South Wales)
  • M5 (West Bromwich, West Midlands, to Exeter, Devon - J4a to 6)
  • M6 (Between Rugby and Coventry, Warwickshire and West Midlands, to Gretna, Scotland - J2 to 8, J10a to 13, J16 to 19)
  • M20 (Swanley, Kent, to Folkestone, Kent - J3 to 7)
  • M23 (Hooley, Surrey to Pease Pottage, West Sussex - J8 - 10)
  • M25 (London ring road - J2 to 3, J5 to 30)
  • M42 (Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, to Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire - J3a to 9)
  • M60 (Manchester ring road - J8 to 18)
  • M62 (Liverpool, Merseyside, to North Cave, East Yorkshire - J10 to 12, J18 to 20, J25 to 30)
Are smart motorways safe?

Critics have long argued that smart motorways are unsafe because they do not have a hard shoulder where drivers who break down can safely stop and exit their vehicle, rather than being marooned amid speeding traffic. 

In 2019, an AA survey of more than 15,000 UK drivers found 71% felt all lane running motorways felt more dangerous than those with a permanent hard shoulder.

The figures showed that on one section of the M25, outside London, the number of near misses had risen 20-fold since the hard shoulder was removed in April 2014. In the five years before the road was converted into a smart motorway, just 72 near misses were recorded. In the five years following the conversion, 1,485 were recorded.

In March 2020, the government published a report on the safety of smart motorways, including recommendations to build public confidence, including making emergency areas more visible, and investigating specific sections of the motorway network that had been raised as concerns. 

A year later, a report by National Highways highlighted that 58 casualties had been recorded on the live lanes of smart motorways between 2015 and 2019, compared to 341 on conventional motorways. It concluded that work on creating additional emergency areas and upgrading cameras would soon begin.

However, concerns about safety have not yet been fully alleviated. In August this year, a whistleblower at National Highways told The Telegraph that “someone is going to get killed” because of signalling problems across the smart motorways control systems.

In response to today’s Mail investigation, the Department for Transport said: “Road safety is always our top priority. We take these claims very seriously and will ensure National Highways conducts a thorough investigation.”

National Highways’ chief executive Harris said: “We recognise concerns continue to be raised about smart motorways. These upgrades work as a system, with technology, infrastructure and people working together, and data shows fatalities are less likely than on conventional motorways. If there is a problem with any one part of the system, other parts are activated to help keep traffic moving safely.

“Our traffic officers work around the clock, every day of the year to help drivers and deal with incidents. We are, however, investigating these allegations as a matter of urgency.”

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