Highways England collaboration produces supernatural success

23/03/2021
Paul Doney

Highways England is heading up an international effort to find the best products and systems available for the removal of older ‘ghost’ road markings to provide clear direction to our drivers. Innovation director Paul Doney (pictured) gives an update on this area of innovation.

What are the current issues with markings?

‘Ghost markings’ (pictured, middle right) can be very confusing for drivers. These occur when road markings need to be removed, for example when road layouts change for works, and the original lines still appear as marks. The problem is worse in bright sunshine.

Also, removing markings can cause damage to the surface, with the repairs creating additional work and adding to the overall cost of road schemes.

While existing systems and products are serving us well, Highways England is constantly looking for new opportunities to improve what we do and make driving a safer and smoother experience.

Being acutely aware of the challenges of removing road markings and also maintaining retroreflection – brighter markings – we set out to find a solution that will make a real difference for drivers on our roads.

What are you doing to tackle the issue?

Our supply chain and other manufacturers from beyond our sector regularly approach us with new ideas for processes or products. This is a worldwide problem, so we wanted to challenge the entire industry and decided to run a competition to see the best of what was on offer in one go.

Highways England, in conjunction with Roadcare and Kier, launched the £685,000 international competition to find a solution and give us a greater understanding of the materials and processes that we, and the wider roads industry should be using in the future. We were delighted with the response from existing suppliers and beyond, with some competitors even developing bespoke products.

We have also been delighted with the results of the ongoing trials on a number of removal techniques and road marking products. We are confident we will have some sustainable solutions to the challenges faced on road markings at the moment.

There were 36 entries from around the world for the Transforming Road Markings competition, with applicants asked to send samples of their product for testing, which has been taking place at an industry-recognised centre in the Spanish capital, Madrid. The road markings materials were subjected to some two million ‘wheel overs’ (pictured below) with any failing to meet the current Highways England performance standards eliminated.

Following this rigorous testing, the seven leading products were put to the test with a live on-road trial on the M5 in the South West, between junctions 20 (Clevedon, Nailsea) and 18 (Avonmouth).

Five road marking removal systems, using equipment from countries based around Europe, have been tested to see if they effectively remove markings without causing damage to the surface.

One approach from the new systems has been to apply a black baseline first before adding the white line. This also fills in some of the voids in the road, preventing the marking from penetrating too deeply into the surface. This would be beneficial when it comes to removing the markings. Another advantage is that it provides greater contrast between the marking and the road itself, which is used by lane-keeping systems in many cars and will be increasingly important as autonomous vehicles are introduced.

How has this been funded?

The competition was made possible thanks to a £150m ringfenced fund Highways England offered for innovation projects.

What happens next?

Testing has been carried out in all weathers on the motorway, in real-life conditions since March 2019 and will continue until May when the final results will be gathered and the findings analysed. So far the results have been very promising and we can see an opportunity for safety and performance benefits from them. Once complete, the most successful products will be highlighted in research shared around the world with an eye on setting higher standards for our roads.

Another positive from the initiative was that during the competition people were sharing knowledge and best practice. It developed into an industry-wide collaboration and we have collected a large amount of information based on facts and not just opinions.

Highways England’s chief engineer, Mike Wilson, said: ‘As a result of the research, we hope to have identified new products and processes that will see markings that have greater retroreflectivity, which to the driver means brighter markings. When removing existing markings we are aiming to make scarring and ghosting a thing of the past.

‘By developing and using new and improved products and ways of working across the industry, lanes will be more distinct in roadworks and finished schemes will have clearer markings. All this will mean safer and better journeys for drivers.

‘Less damage to the road also means fewer potholes and less need for repairs that impact upon people’s journeys.’

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