Technology being built into smart motorways to improve their controversial safety credentials might only detect around 85 per cent of stranded vehicles – and leave thousands of motorists a year vulnerable to potentially life-threatening collisions, a report has revealed.
Stationary Vehicle Detection (SVD) systems are due to be rolled out across all smart motorways in England, which have had hard shoulders removed in the aim of improving traffic flow and reducing congestion spikes.
The introduction of SVD systems will cost at least £18million after Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced last year they will be retrofitted into the network by the end of 2023 to protect motorists following a safety inquiry.
However, industry scrutiny of a Highways England trial published in 2016 has found errors in the report that suggests the technology is not as effective as initially claimed.
Stationary Vehicle Detection systems being retrofitted to smart motorways to boost safety might not be as effective as first claimed, a new study has revealed
The report, published by the Government agency and reviewed by Highways Magazine earlier this month, details a 2015 test of SVD systems on a eight-mile stretch of the M25 over six days.
It says the technology identified 192 stationary vehicle ‘events’ during the review period.
However, CCTV later revealed that there had been 294 stopped motors on the section of the busy route over the six days.
The publication says this means the systems only successfully identified 65 per cent of cases of motors at a standstill.
While this was well below the required detection rate of 80 per cent – already considered by experts as a relatively low benchmark for safety – the system passed the evaluation, because some of the events for which alarms were not sent were identified were correct, even though they were labelled incorrectly in the report, Highways England told This is Money.
With these incidents included, it boosted SVD performance to 86.4 per cent, which was deemed passable even with a 3.9 per cent margin of error applied.
‘Subsequently, a highway expert told Highways that these events should have been classified as missed detections. If they had the system would have failed the evaluation,’ the publication said.
Of the 102 events for which alerts were not sent to operators, 40 were classified as missed detection for ‘unknown reason’ or ‘blind spots’.
Another 62 were classified as ‘allowable missed detection’. However, later in the report these are referred to as ‘SVD system detected’.
Highways Magazine found errors in a 2016 report published by smart motorway operator, Highways England, which suggests the technology that might fail to identify 2,400 potentially dangerous cases on an 8-mile stretch of road every year
Highways Magazine said the operator has now claimed that 45 of the latter cases were in fact incorrectly labelled, as they were detected but no alert was sent because they were ‘suppressed’ by a feature built into the system to prevent unnecessary alarms being raised.
Highways England claims the remaining 17 events should not have been included in the analysis in the report at all and therefore should be discounted from the 294 total recorded.
Taking into account the reporting errors, the government agency now says the SVD system worked 237 times out of 277, a success rate of 85.6 per cent – which is still above the 80 per cent benchmark required to meet the minimum standard with the designated margin on error included.
Estimations by Highways Magazine, based on the review of the report, state that 2,400 stationary vehicles could be missed annually by SVDs on the eight-mile stretch of M25 smart motorway used in the trial.
With around 788 miles of trunk roads set to be converted to smart motorways by 2025, the detection systems being retrofitted to smart motorways could miss thousands of potentially lethal cases.
Speaking to This is Money, a Highways England spokesman said: ‘Stopped vehicle detection is part of a wider system on smart motorways which helps to keep motorists safe.
‘Initial trials in 2015 indicated that more than 85 per cent of incidents were identified – surpassing the benchmark set – and the technology has since been developed to become even more effective.
‘Drivers and passengers can have confidence that stopped vehicle detection plays its part in keeping motorway journeys safe.’
Highways Magazine added that a second trial of the SVD system was conducted in 2018 but the results have not been published by Highways England on the grounds of ‘commercial confidentiality’.
A emergency refuge area on the M3 smart motorway near Camberley in Surrey. The motorways have no hard shoulder for emergencies, and use technology to close off lanes
Edmund King, the president of the AA who has been campaigning fiercely for years for improvements to boost the safety of smart motorways, told the publication that any questions raised about the performance of SVD systems ‘should be investigated as a matter of urgency’.
He added: ‘Smart motorways are meant to rely on technology but if that technology is now being questioned it might be time to go back to the drawing board.’
In the last month, the Commons Transport Committee began an inquiry into the safety of smart motorways, after it emerged that deaths rose to a record 14 in 2019, up from 11 in 2018 and five in 2017.
Highways England suggested the problem lies with drivers not understanding how the roads work, which has resulted in a new television advertising campaign to raise awareness.
That’s despite three coroners in recent months slamming the lack of safety on smart motorways.
During a January inquest into the death of Jason Mercer, 46, on a stretch of the M1 with no hard shoulder in June 2019, Sheffield coroner David Urpeth said: ‘I find, as a finding of fact, it is clear a lack of hard shoulder contributed to this tragedy.’
He added: ‘I believe that smart motorways, as things currently stand, present an ongoing risk of future deaths.’
Mr Mercer’s window, Claire, 44, believes Highways England should be prosecuted over the death of her husband and earlier this month staged a protest outside a police headquarters.
Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason was killed along with Alexandru Murgeanu when they stopped on a section of smart motorway on the M1 near Sheffield after a minor collision and were then hit by a lorry, protests outside South Yorkshire Police HQ in Sheffield, where she is calling on the chief constable to prosecute Highways England over her husband’s death. Picture date: Tuesday March 2, 2021
In February, Doncaster coroner Nicola Mundy referred Highways England to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to consider if corporate manslaughter charges are appropriate in relation to the death of grandmother Nargis Begum, 62, who died on a different stretch of the M1 in September 2018.
And just a matter of weeks ago, another coroner issued a repeated warning against the expansion of the smart motorway network after a teenager who died in a crash on the M1 became the fifth fatality in two years.
The assistant coroner for Bedfordshire and Luton, Tom Stoate, wrote to Highways England calling for urgent action after a detective said the teenagers would not have come to such harm if there had been a hard shoulder on the route.
Zahid Ahmed, 19, was killed when the people carrier he was in stopped before an emergency refuse area on the smart motorway and was hit by a lorry at 56mph.
Smart motorways have seen 38 deaths over five years: Here’s what you need to know
What is a smart motorway?
Smart motorways involve a range of methods to manage traffic flow, most controversially using the hard shoulder as a live running lane.
Refuges where drivers can stop are placed every mile or so. Variable speed limits are also used.
How many are there?
Motorways with sections where the hard shoulder has been removed include the M1, M4, M5, M6, M25 and M62. The smart network stretches to around 500 miles in England, with an additional 300 miles planned by 2025.
There are currently more than 20 sections of ‘smart motorways’ on seven different motorways
What are the benefits?
Smart motorways are designed to increase capacity without the more disruptive and costly process of widening carriageways.
But are they safe?
Concerns have been raised about incidents where stopped vehicles are hit from behind. Highways England has insisted smart motorways are ‘at least as safe as, or safer than, the conventional motorways they replaced’.
But a survey of drivers by the RAC found 70 per cent felt removing the hard shoulder on motorways compromised safety.
How many have died?
BBC Panorama in January last year found that at least 38 people had died on stretches of smart motorways over the previous five years.
What do officials say?
An ‘evidence stocktake’ published by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last March stated that the risk of a collision between moving vehicles is lower on smart motorways than conventional motorways.
But the chance of a crash involving a moving vehicle and a stationary vehicle was found to be higher when the hard shoulder was removed.
An 18-point action plan included more refuges for emergencies and faster rollout of a radar-based system to spot stranded vehicles.
Are smart motorways used in other European countries?
The vast majority of motorway-style roads in Europe have a permanent emergency lane.
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