Smart motorway death toll is shock to the system

Dominic Browne and Chris Ames

The Government has told BBC's Panorama that 38 people have been killed on smart motorways over the last five years.

Freedom of Information requests sent by the BBC to Highways England also revealed that on one section of the M25 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, there were just 72 near misses. In the five years after, there were 1,485,' the BBC reported.

A "near miss" is described as an incident with 'the potential to cause injury or ill health'.

The idea behind the programme was to increase capacity without the cost of building new routes and create more free-flowing traffic, but it is now facing an overhaul after transport minister Grant Shapps announced a review last autumn - the results of which are now overdue.

The smart motorway programme has several different variations; some permanently remove the hard shoulder meaning drivers might break down in live lanes of fast-moving traffic, others do this on a 'dynamic' basis where the shoulder would sometimes be closed off and sometimes open to traffic.

Highways England has recently said it would scrap the so-called dynamic hard shoulders.

Perhaps most concerning variation is the fact that not every smart motorway section had the same technology to help detect vehicles that had broken down or been involved in collisions in moving traffic.

A planned roll-out a radar system Highways England developed to help detect stopped vehicles across the entire smart motorway network could take place 'over the next three years', the BBC reported, although it is unclear from previous Highways England statements whether they have the capcity to do this. These systems are currently only fitted to two sections of the M25.

Highways England have also previously announced a retrofitting of refuge areas to the current network to make sure the distances between them are not as great. On some sections, they are 2.5 miles apart.  

However, this is unlikely to allay fears as Highways England has already conceded it could not guarantee the system works in all situations.

After sending out mixed messages over the effectiveness of its stopped vehicle detection (SVD) system, a letter to a coroner from chief engineer Mike Wilson following a fatality on the M6 smart motorway gave the clearest indication yet of its limitations.

At times of high traffic flow, Highways England admitted system throws up an ‘unmanageable number of false alerts’, while the radar system developed to provide SVD has only been successfully trialled in low traffic flow conditions.

In high flow traffic, Highways England said its MIDAS (Motorway Incident Detection and Automatic Signalling) system would 'take over' and could ‘help mitigate the risk to stopped vehicles’ however it does not provide SVD. This system uses inductive loops in the roadway to measure the flow of passing traffic.

Chief executive Jim O’Sullivan admitted to the Transport Select Committee last year that MIDAS is an ‘inadequate proxy’ for SVD as it is not designed to pick up a stopped vehicle but only alert operators to changes in traffic flow – a sudden slowing of traffic being used as a proxy for a potentially stopped vehicle.

MIDAS's traffic management capabilities were also subject of a ‘comprehensive review’ from Highways England in 2018 after it started throwing up false results and leading to unnecessary speed restrictions being put in place.

In his letter, to Emma Brown, area coroner for Birmingham and Solihull, Mr Wilson stated that Highways England is ‘exploring other technologies, which could reduce the risk to stopped vehicles in higher flow conditions’.

He added that ‘innovative solutions’ to be explored included ‘CCTV analytics, vehicle telemetry and crowdsourced data.

However, he warned that as these technologies required evaluation and testing, Highways England was unable to state when they would be implemented.

When appearing before the Transport Select Committee last October, Highways England chief executive Jim O’Sullivan conceded that using radar to detect stopped vehicles was ‘challenging’, adding, ‘we are looking to other technologies in the future and what might be out there to help’.

However, he also admitted that at least some lives would have been saved if the SVD systems had been rolled-out further.

Highways England has previously stated that the tendency of MIDAS to create false positives undermines its ability to detect and manage abnormal traffic flows.

A Highways England spokesperson said: ‘The second Road Investment Strategy that will set an investment plan and performance specification for Highways England is expected to be announced soon. Highways England will publish its delivery plan shortly afterwards.

‘The secretary of state commissioned an urgent piece of work to gather the facts about smart motorway safety and make recommendations. We are not going to pre-empt the outcome of that work.’

Mr Wilson’s letter to the coroner was in response to a ‘Regulation 28 Report to Prevent Future Deaths’ following the case of Dev Naran.

The eight-year-old died when the car in which he was a passenger was hit by a lorry on the M6, having stopped in the hard shoulder when it was being temporarily used as a live lane under the ‘dynamic hard shoulder’ version of a Smart Motorway, which is only used during high traffic flows.

Ms Brown said she had issued her report out of concern that ‘the particular nature of the risk on this section of the M6’ is not regarded as an acute problem by Highways England ‘when it should be and that I was not given evidence of specific work being undertaken to address this particular risk’.

Highways jobs

Collision Investigation Officer

Transport for Greater Manchester
£26,844.00 - £38,228.00 Per Annum
Are you excited by the opportunity to make a difference to the roads of Greater Manchester? Greater Manchester
Recruiter: Transport for Greater Manchester

2 x Environmental Health Officer (Food, Health & Safety)

Dacorum Borough Council
£31,218 to £39,786 (Inclusive of London Fringe Weighting) + Car Allowance   
Seeking to appoint 2 x fully qualified Environmental Health Officer’s to work within our... Hertfordshire
Recruiter: Dacorum Borough Council

Senior Traffic Engineer

East Riding of Yorkshire Council
£32.029 - £34.788
We seek an enthusiastic and experienced traffic engineer to manage our Traffic Team. East Riding of Yorkshire
Recruiter: East Riding of Yorkshire Council

Head of Asset Management (Regeneration & Environment)

Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council
£55,856 - £59,773
We have a current vacancy for the role of Head of Asset Management, and we are looking for a dynamic individual to lead the service Rotherham, South Yorkshire
Recruiter: Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council

Environmental Education Assistant

Brent Council
£22,779 - £24,030 p.a. inc. (pro-rata)
Looking for instructors who complement our enthusiastic, motivated and friendly staff team. Brent, London (Greater)
Recruiter: Brent Council

Structures Asset Manager

Kent County Council
£52,713 - £58,774 per annum (salary dependent on experience) 
If you have the ability to succeed in either of these roles and are able to prioritise competing demands and objectives, coupled with... Ashford, Kent
Recruiter: Kent County Council

Structures Senior Engineer

Kent County Council
Starting salary £33,082 per annum
Providing engineering support for maintenance of highway structures, liaising and working closely across KCC. Ashford, Kent
Recruiter: Kent County Council

Development Management Engineer

Warwickshire County Council
£37,849 - £39,782 per annum
The successful applicant for this post will be capable of taking the lead on work within the team associated with... Warwickshire
Recruiter: Warwickshire County Council

Permit Officer – Place

Enfield London Borough Council
£27,228 - £29,241
You will have the ability to understand and learn relevant legislation and be able to work on your own initiative but also work as part of... Enfield (London Borough), London (Greater)
Recruiter: Enfield London Borough Council

Senior Policy Planner

London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and London Borough of Wandsworth
£32,643 – £45,704 depending on skills
Are you looking for working arrangements that enhance your work-life balance? London (Greater)
Recruiter: London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and London Borough of Wandsworth

Community Services Manager

Copeland Borough Council
Competitive Salary
Looking for an energised and enthusiastic candidate to lead and focus the service through the challenges set by the Resources and Waste Strategy. Moresby, Whitehaven
Recruiter: Copeland Borough Council

Highways Infrastructure and Maintenance Manager - Highways Network

Bridgend County Borough Council
£37,813 - £40,760 per annum
An exciting opportunity has arrived inside the Highway Asset Maintenance Team within the Communities Directorate. Bridgend (Pen-y-bont ar Ogwr)
Recruiter: Bridgend County Borough Council

Business Support Officers - Transport Team (2 Jobs)

Kirklees Metropolitan Council
£19,554 - £21,166
Within the Transport Team you will be required to work flexibly in accordance with the needs of the service, which can men... Kirklees, West Yorkshire
Recruiter: Kirklees Metropolitan Council

Transportation Planning Manager

Brent Council
£55,638 - £58,779 p.a. inc.
ou will have an excellent knowledge and understanding of transport policy at both local and national level. Expertise of both people and... Wembley, London (Greater)
Recruiter: Brent Council

Commercial Contract Supervisor

Wirral Borough Council
£30,507 to £32,878
No holding back. No excuses. Just change Wirral. Wirral, Merseyside
Recruiter: Wirral Borough Council

Technical Officer – Pest Control

Kirklees Metropolitan Council
£19,554 - £23,836
This job is temporary for up to 11 months from the date of appointment to cover the absence of the current post holder. Kirklees, West Yorkshire
Recruiter: Kirklees Metropolitan Council

Divisional Director Neighbourhoods & Sustainability

Glasgow City Council
£83,708 - £95,232 (LDR3a, Grade 11)
This innovative role will contribute to the Council Strategic Plan Theme of A Sustainable Low Carbon City Glasgow, Glasgow City
Recruiter: Glasgow City Council

Principal Transport Manager

Be First
Competitive Salary
As our Principal Transport Manager, you will deliver the Local Implementation Plan, ensuring the £2.4million TFL budget is used effectively London (Central), London (Greater)
Recruiter: Be First

Highway Operations Manager

Croydon London Borough Council
£43,590 - £45,585
We are seeking an enthusiastic, motivated and well organised highway operations manager Croydon (City/Town), London (Greater)
Recruiter: Croydon London Borough Council

Structures and Watercourse Manager

Croydon London Borough Council
We are seeking an enthusiastic, motivated and well organised manager to look over the structures team and wider Highway section. Croydon (City/Town), London (Greater)
Recruiter: Croydon London Borough Council

Highways on Fridays

Register now!

Latest Issue

latest magazine issue

Valuing our roads: What is a network worth?

Also inside:

Traffex review 

Diary of a flood.

Beautiful roads

Live Labs exclusive briefing 

View the latest issue

Latest Video