Smart Motorway

Frequent faults spark new worries about UK’s smart motorways

29th Apr, 2024

Smart motorways have long been a controversial topic here in the UK, and it’s one that we’ve covered several times over the years here at Scrap Car Network. And for as long as they’ve been around, people have been asking whether smart motorways are unsafe. The answer to that has become increasingly clear in the last few years, with the industry and general public alike consistently moving towards a consensus that they’re not fit for purpose.

Every new discovery or study seems to support that idea. Most recently, a BBC Panorama investigation has found that the technology underpinning smart motorways (i.e. the very thing that makes it smart) actually stops working on a regular basis. Using Freedom of Information requests and a variety of other techniques, researchers have discovered hundreds of incidents when vital safety equipment was out of action.

All of that dramatically raises the chances of drivers prematurely scrapping their cars – not to mention potentially threatening their health and safety, too!

What is a smart motorway?

Smart motorways have technically been around since 2006, which means that there’s a near-100% chance you’ve driven on one by now. Basically, a smart motorway is a highway that uses technology to regulate the flow of traffic, and minimise congestion. They primarily do this through the use of a complex network of sensors, cameras and gantries, although there is also some human oversight.

One of the most well-known (and notorious) points surrounding the implementation of smart motorways is the removal of the hard shoulder.

Now, in a nutshell, there are three different types of smart motorway: controlled, dynamic, and all-lane running.

  • Controlled smart motorways retain full usage of the hard shoulder
  • Dynamic smart motorways also retain a hard shoulder, but will sometimes open it up as a live lane, to ease congestion
  • All Lane Running motorways have no hard shoulder – all four lanes are open to live traffic

As you might expect, it’s the last type of motorway that’s the most controversial, and a significant number of deaths on smart motorways have occurred specifically on All Lane Running motorways.

How is the technology falling short?

Mainly through errors and power cuts to overhead gantries, which are in turn endangering drivers.

Now, it’s worth starting by pointing out that there are lots of people who would argue that the technology isn’t capable of properly ensuring the safety of drivers even when it’s in full working order. The hard shoulder is normally used as a (relatively) safe haven for broken down vehicles, but now when a vehicle breaks down, cameras and sensors are supposed to detect that vehicle, and close the lane accordingly.

That’s dangerous as it is, since it leaves people stranded in lanes of fast-moving traffic, where emergency vehicles can sometimes struggle to get through to them.

What’s worse though – and what’s causing so much concern at the moment – is that an unsettling amount of underlying technology is suffering from frequent outages, preventing it from properly doing its job of protecting drivers. Panorama discovered that in just under a two-year period (June 2022 to February 2024), there were 392 incidents where motorway technology lost power – effectively hobbling its ability to detect a stranded vehicle, and leaving drivers without help incoming.

In the six months leading up to February 2024, there was almost one power outage every single day. Throughout that entire two-year period, there were several outages that lasted several days each – the shortest was three, and the longest was a staggering eleven-day outage on a stretch of road between Swindon and Reading. To reiterate, that’s about a week and a half where crucial safety functions on that smart motorway were not perform their safety-critical role.

It’s not just outages that are the problem, either. In 2022 alone, National Highways’ own statistics show that there were more than 2300 faults with the radar system designed to spot stationary vehicles – so even when it’s got power, that’s not always a guarantee it’s still able to do its job effectively.

Why is that so dangerous?

Outages and errors are dangerous because it means that drivers in distress are often being forced to stop dead in a live lane of traffic, where other drivers are generally going at 70 miles an hour, and don’t necessarily expect to have to stop. In other words, if you break down in a live lane, the longer you’re there without assistance, the greater the chances of someone cannoning into you at terminal velocity.

One National Highways insider – who understandably wished to remain anonymous – said that the radar detects 89% of stopped vehicles. However, that leaves one in ten drivers who are sitting in a live lane when they break down. Now, a 2019 study (reasonably old already) by Highways England noted that 224,225 cars broke down in a 12-month period on motorways alone. Even if roughly 90% of those vehicles are detected, the remaining 10% of that figure is well over 22,000 drivers. To put that in perspective, that’s almost enough people to fill the Manchester Arena, or around 60 drivers every day. All of whom the system just isn’t accounting for.

What has National Highways said?

It would be unfair to say that the National Highways agency – and the government at large – isn’t recognising the issue. In light of the safety concerns raised, the government has said that it’s halting the roll-out of new smart motorways, and announced that it’s spending £900m on technology to make the existing network safer.

However, the flipside is that there are no plans to put the hard shoulder back. National Highways has said that it would increase congestion, nor to scrap smart motorways entirely. Notably, transport secretary Grant Shapps has gone on record before saying that doing so “would require the equivalent land of 700 Wembley Stadium-sized football pitches”.

National Highways operational director, Andrew Page-Dove, made sure to say that “safety is our highest priority, and our motorways are statistically some of the safest in the world”.

As things stand, it looks like the public have yet to be convinced.

Smart motorways may not be scrapped anytime soon – but if you think your car might be, then you’re in exactly the right place. We now have more than 40 years of experience behind us, so you can trust us when we say we can get you the very best price, right here at Scrap Car Network! All you need to do is enter a few details into our homepage, and we’ll provide you with an instant online quote! Curious to see how much your car is worth?

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