Senior MP criticises smart motorway safety progress

22/04/2021
Dominic Browne

Highways England has pledged to accelerate safety improvements on smart motorways in its first progress report since a national 'stocktake' of the controversial schemes, though critics say change is not happening fast enough.

The government-owned company has published its first year progress report on last year's smart motorways stocktake and action plan.

In a written statement to Parliament, transport secretary Grant  stated that over the past 12 months Highways England has:

  • launched a major road safety campaign to give drivers clear advice about what to do in the event of breaking down
  • completed work to turn emergency areas orange so they are more visible to drivers and improved the signage letting drivers know how far they are from the next place to stop in an emergency
  • installed 10 more emergency areas on the M25 around London
  • held a public consultation on proposed changes to the Highway Code that will provide more information about motorway driving
  • continued to upgrade cameras so they can automatically detect red X violations
  • introduced radar-based stopped vehicle detection technology on stretches of the M3 and the M20, with work underway on the M1.

Shapps said Highways England would now accelerate 'a number of actions so that the completion dates set out in Highways England: Strategic Business Plan 2020-25 are brought forward'.

He added: 'Most significantly, radar-based stopped vehicle detection (SVD) technology will now be installed on all operational ALR motorways by September 2022, 6 months earlier than planned.

'Highways England has also made a commitment that no ALR motorways will open without radar technology to spot stopped vehicles, enable lanes to be closed where necessary and get help to drivers quickly.'

However Highways England's chief engineer Mike Wilson promised that the SVD technology would be rolled out five years ago.

In evidence to the transport select committee, Mr Wilson said in 2016: 'We have a stopped vehicle detection system, a radar-based system that allows us to identify stopped vehicles, particularly in low flows but all the time. We are now confident that it works, and it will be part of the standard roll-out of smart motorways going forward.'

Chair of the Transport Select Committee, Huw Merriman MP, said: 'The safety enhancements and reassurances given to us by Highways England in 2016, and in subsequent years, do not appear to have been delivered in full.

'For example, in 2016 we were told that stopped vehicle detection technology would be introduced ‘going forward’ for new Smart Motorways and would be retrofitted for the stretches of Smart Motorway already in place. To hear this same commitment today, five years after it was first suggested, begs the question as to why these safety enhancements haven’t been made more quickly. The Government should be prepared to keep an open mind to the recommendations which come forward from our inquiry.'

An investigation by Highways on the 2016 trials of the SVD system suggests that it was not as effective as hoped for and, according to experts, may not even have passed the 80% detection benchmark Highways England set.

The Transport Committee is currently in the midst of another inquiry to determine if Smart Motorways are safe.

Mr Merriman added: 'We will consider all options based on the evidence. This may include recommendations for change and whether the roll-out should be paused and hard shoulders reinstated.'

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