A radar system that should alert the smart motorway control room to breakdowns within 20 seconds gives a host of false warnings – while missing stranded cars.
Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) has been lauded by highways chiefs and ministers as ‘ground-breaking’.
But control room staff say the system – to be expanded along the entire smart motorway network at a cost of £122million – is impossible to rely on.
It currently ‘protects’ 24 miles on the M25 around London and 13 miles on the M23 in Surrey.
Staff view alerts from the system, which makes a ‘groaning’ sound when it is triggered, as ‘low priority’ because it goes off so often. Slow-moving traffic and even road signs set it off.
In a series of logs seen by the Mail, staff say it often misses breakdowns. Labour’s transport spokesman Jim McMahon lambasted the tech, saying it ‘isn’t fit for purpose’. ‘The Government is notorious for bad IT projects’, he said. ‘You can’t have a bad IT project when people’s lives are being put at risk.’
Former roads minister Sir Mike Penning said: ‘Even one minute sitting in stranded traffic is unacceptable.’
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps ordered the technology to be installed across the network by March 2023 as part of an 18-point plan to improve safety.
The system works through radar posts spaced every 500metres along the motorway.
They are supposed to identify and locate stopped vehicles and then alert the control room.
Staff are then meant to use CCTV to pinpoint the location and check whether there is an accident or breakdown.
The M3 smart motorway near Camberley in Surrey. The motorways have no hard shoulder for emergencies, and use technology to close off lanes
Former transport minister Andrew Jones said in 2016 the system had been ‘successfully trialled’ and was an ‘important measure… which we believe will help reduce the risk associated with stopping in live lanes.’
In 2019, former Highways England chief Jim O’Sullivan told MPs the system is ‘ground-breaking technology’ and trials on the M25 had ‘proved that it works’.
Mr O’Sullivan, who said they had been ‘perfecting the design of smart motorways for ten to 15 years’, added: ‘Getting it right and making sure it works in all geographies and topographies as we roll it out is very important to us.’
But – in marked contrast – internal reports reveal staff flagged system failures to highways bosses several times over the past few months.
On June 4 an operator warned there had been 48 false alarms in five hours at the same location.
On August 25, staff said the system had been ‘suppressing itself’ and a stranded car ‘in lane one of four not picked up’. Another said the radar system ‘constantly goes off, but nothing is ever there on CCTV. This has been a regular occurrence for over a month now. It needs to be fixed.’
A fourth said a contractor reported a broken-down vehicle on a smart motorway live lane ‘with a recovery truck also stopped in lane one fending it off’ but there was no SVD alert.
An undercover reporter working at the National Highways South Mimms control centre witnessed the system fail to detect a car sitting in speeding traffic on the M25 for more than 30 minutes. Luckily it had been spotted by staff.
A staff member, who has worked at the company for more than a decade, said: ‘If that [SVD] works the way it should work, it’s much safer…But he could be sat there for hours and we wouldn’t even know about it, and if we don’t know we haven’t set signals.’
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps ordered the technology to be installed across the network by March 2023 as part of an 18-point plan to improve safety
He added: ‘That’s when a truck comes along and hits him and we go ‘Oh well we didn’t know he was there’. If nobody reports it and he gets killed and they go, ‘Why wasn’t it actioned?’ ‘Because it never flashed up’.’
One operator said: ‘When they introduced the smart motorways, the justification for getting rid of the hard shoulder is they’d have all this extra technology including this stationary vehicle detection thing. But it’s really bad, it just doesn’t quite work how it should.’
He said four out five times it goes off there is nothing there, and he fears operators will fall into a ‘false sense of security’ and not react with urgency.
A portion of a £150million fund for ’emerging technology’ was spent on the tech in 2016-2017, the agency’s accounts show. Previous reports state it takes operators 17 minutes to spot a broken-down vehicle. Motorists are more than 200 per cent more likely to have a breakdown in a live lane on smart motorways in off-peak times – when speeds are higher, increasing ‘severity’ of potential accidents – compared to conventional motorways.
National Highways said: ‘SVD is an enhancement to the system of features which are standard on all lane running motorways. This is not the case on conventional motorways.
‘It is designed to alert the operator to anything that could constitute an obstruction on the carriageway. This can include a situation where a vehicle has stopped but has then been driven off before further action could be taken by the operator. It could also include temporary traffic signs or debris in the road, helping our operators to direct traffic officers to take action to prevent incidents happening.’
Refuge bays for stranded motorists too far apart
By Daily Mail Reporter
National Highways staff say there are too few emergency bays on smart motorways, leaving motorists dangerously stranded when they break down.
One some stretches the laybys are now 1.5 miles apart – compared with just 400 to 600 metres when trials of the system began more than ten years ago on the M42.
Outraged industry leaders and MPs have demanded more refuge areas on roads that have no hard shoulder so drivers are not marooned in high-speed traffic while awaiting recovery.
Former National Highways chief executive Jim O’Sullivan insisted in 2019 that spacing ‘does not seem to matter from a safety perspective’.
National Highways staff say there are too few emergency bays on smart motorways, leaving motorists dangerously stranded when they break down (file photo)
But one operator, who has worked in the Regional Operations Centre in South Mimms for 14 years, told an undercover reporter from the Mail ‘they haven’t got nearly enough’ Emergency Refuge Areas on the M25.
‘I told them that when they first started bringing [smart motorways] up. There’s too much of a gap between them so that when people break down, they’re stuck, they couldn’t make it to a bay,’ he added.
One National Highways employee, who contacted this paper after reading our investigation, said they were concerned about motorists’ safety.
The worker added: ‘The emergency refuge bays are positioned in very strange positions. Some are located on bends and they are spaced too far apart. ‘They are very unsafe for our customers. The concept works but it needs the tech to run it correctly.’
National Highways said there are 34 emergency areas on the All Lane Running sections of the M25 including ten extra installed since the smart motorways was first introduced
Sir Edmund King, president of the AA, said: ‘If ‘smart’ motorways are to continue, we need to double the number of emergency laybys, retrofitting on existing stretches to create more safe havens for broken down vehicles, and more reliable technology.’
After reading the Mail’s investigation, former roads minister Robert Goodwill, who backs smart motorways, admitted improvements were essential.
He said: ‘We definitely need to make sure we have the refuges closer together and that the cameras and radar work. But I don’t think we should abandon smart motorways completely, we should refine them and make sure they work better.’
He added that when working properly, smart motorways should be safer than conventional ones as they can avert pile-ups by slowing traffic down and also prevent drivers stopping on the hard shoulder, where they are at risk of being hit.
National Highways said there are 34 emergency areas on the All Lane Running sections of the M25 including ten extra installed since the smart motorways was first introduced.
It is considering retrofitting additional areas on existing smart motorways where they are more than one mile apart. A review will be completed by April of next year.