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  • Writer's pictureSafer Highways

Boris Johnson orders investigation into safety of smart motorways

Boris Johnson has ordered an inquiry into smart motorways after a newspaper investigation revealed problems with the technology used to keep motorists safe.

The prime minister has instructed National Highways to investigate after one in ten cameras were discovered to not be working as they should.

A reporter working undercover for six weeks in a control room recorded a colleague saying: “We’ve got no signals, you’re all going to die. Whichever God you believe in, start praying now.”

Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said he was deeply concerned, and requested an update on the issue from National Highways within days.

The investigation, by the Daily Mail, found that the £150 million radar system intended to alert the control room to broken-down cars within 20 seconds was often failing to do so.

It also reported new figures suggesting that death rates on smart motorways were up to a third higher than on those with a hard shoulder, despite claims by ministers and highways bosses they were “as safe as, or safer than” their conventional counterparts.

The undercover reporter was based at the South Mimms regional operations centre in Hertfordshire responsible for sections of smart motorways on the M25, M1 and M4.

The stretches of motorway have converted a hard shoulder into a live lane, with messages on electronic signs warning motorists when someone has broken down.

The roads have been the subject of controversy after people who had become marooned were killed by other vehicles while waiting for help.

In the control room on one day this month the reporter found that 112 out of 804 cameras monitoring the routes were either broken, misted up or facing the wrong way.

Almost half the cameras operated by National Highways, formerly Highways England, on one of the busiest stretches of the M25 were failing on one day this month.

Smart motorways are considered a cheaper way of adding capacity and reducing traffic than widening carriageways.

Department for Transport statistics show that for the past two years for which figures are available, “live lane fatality rates” were higher on “all lane running” (ALR) roads — smart motorways.

In 2018 the live lane fatality rate was more than a third higher on the ALR motorways — 0.19 per hundred million vehicle miles compared with 0.14, while in 2019 the rate was 8 per cent higher than on conventional motorways — 0.14 versus 0.13.

National Highways, a government-owned company, claims figures for the whole five-year period, from 2015 to 2019, should be looked at rather than recent years.

But a report earlier this month by the Office of Rail and Road watchdog found the figures were limited because data was available for only 29 miles of the ALR roads — their total extent in 2015, compared with up to 180 miles today.

The newspaper also found issues with the Stopped Vehicle Detection radar system. One stranded car on the M25 was not spotted for 30 minutes.

There are about 375 miles of smart motorway in England, including 235 miles without a hard shoulder.

An additional 300 miles are scheduled to be opened by 2025. Baroness Vere of Norbiton, a roads minister, told MPs in June that smart motorways had “many systems in there that make you safer” including “eyes in the sky” and sensors in the road.

The prime minister’s spokesman said: “We take these claims very seriously and will of course ensure National Highways conducts a thorough investigation.

“It remains that smart motorways are among the safest in the UK with data showing that fatalities are less likely than on conventional ones, and we will continue to work towards building public confidence in them.”


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