Drivers are 'sitting ducks': 17 minutes to spot live lane breakdowns

30/08/2019
Chris Ames

Highways England's control centres can take an average of 17 minutes to spot a broken down vehicle on all lane running ‘smart’ motorways when Stationary Vehicle Detection (SVD) systems are not in place.

A freedom of information request by the AA revealed that out of the 135.1 miles of such schemes in England, only 24.2 miles are coved by SVD - around 18% - which uses radar to identify stationary vehicles in real time.

Highways England relies on CCTV to monitor the vast majority of all lane running schemes

A 2016 Highways England report, Stationary Vehicle Detection, used data from breakdowns on live lane incidents on all lane running sections of the M25.  

This ‘reviewed CCTV footage to identify incidents where the event occurrence time could be recorded…our analysis found the average time…was 17 minutes and 1 second' between occuring and being discovered.

In these all lane running schemes without SVD, more than a third (36%) of live lane breakdowns took more than 15 minutes to find, with the longest taking more than an hour to discover on CCTV.

The AA said the CCTV on the motorway network uses ‘Pan, Tilt and Zoom’ cameras, meaning that they can only look in one direction at a time.

The Highways England report also highlights that once a vehicle has been identified as stopped in a live lane operation centres have a three-minute target to react and set up signal changes, such as the red ‘X’.

All lane running schemes remove the hard shoulder to increase capacity and rely on technology to manage risks. 

The AA pointed out that, according to Highways England’s own analysis, stopping in a live lane of an all lane running motorway more than triples the danger when compared to a traditional motorway with a continuous hard shoulder.

AA president Edmund King said: ‘This highlights why growing numbers of the public are justified in their safety concerns over the removal of the hard shoulder. Ultimately, until you are found by the camera you are a sitting duck.

‘Taking three minutes to set the red ‘X’ is too long for someone in a broken down vehicle to wait. Expecting someone to wait in a dangerous and life threatening position for 20 minutes is simply inexcusable.

‘The safer stationary vehicle detection technology should have been rolled out before any expansion of all lane running was even considered. We are now three years on since their fully throated commitment to installing stopped vehicle detection to all schemes but only 24 miles has the system in place.’

Image from Highways England report

Mr King added: ‘The use of cameras has been sold to drivers on the premise that there is 100% coverage of the motorway. That is only true if the camera is pointing in the direction you are travelling.

‘This smoke and mirrors approach to the removal of the hard shoulder has gone on long enough. There have been too many incidents, too many near misses and too many excuses as to why promises have been bent or broken.

‘We must stop removing the hard shoulder immediately and double the number of emergency refuge numbers already in place.’

A Highways England spokesperson said: ‘The evidence is clear that smart motorways improve safety, with or without automatic stopped vehicle detection systems. The latest generation of smart motorways have helped to improve safety by at least 25%.

‘Our trials on the M25 have shown that a stopped vehicle detection system can be a valuable extra tool to help spot incidents more quickly, and the technology is being designed into all the smart motorway projects that we start constructing from next year.

‘Meanwhile we are looking how we could provide the same benefits on all our other recently opened smart motorway upgrades and work on installing a stopped vehicle detection system on the M3 smart motorway in Surrey and Hampshire is already underway.’

As Highways has noted in a feature on smart motorways, a Highways England analysis of safety on a stretch of motorway on the M25 discounted a rise in casualties on the grounds that the crashes ‘could have happened on any section of motorway’.

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