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National Highways responds to BBC Panorama on smart motorway technology

Government owned operator of Strategic Road network responds to BBC Panorama programme.

National Highways, the government owned company which operates the high speed road network has issued a statement following the BBC's Panorama programme on Smart Motorway Technology.

The programme which first aired on Tuesday evening at 8pm made a number of statements about failing technology.

However, in a statement National Highways have stepped forward to reassure road users about the safety of Smart Motorways.

The statement in full reads as follows:

BBC Panorama’s coverage on smart motorways and the technology deployed on them is absent of key information and relevant context, despite National Highways engaging closely with the producer and responding extensively to the points raised.

To state clearly at the outset, safety is National Highways’ highest priority, and our motorways are statistically some of the safest in the world. There is still work to do as every death is a tragedy and every serious injury a life changed. We accept that we need to help everyone feel confident when using smart motorways.

Smart motorways were introduced to provide extra capacity on some of our busiest and most congested sections of motorway, and the latest safety data (Smart motorways stocktake third year progress report, page 44) shows that, overall, in terms of serious or fatal casualties, smart motorways are our safest roads.

We are taking action to close the gap between how drivers feel and what the safety statistics show by increasing the number of emergency areas, delivering education campaigns, and improving the resilience of our operational technology systems.

On some of the key assertions made:

‘The latest figures suggest if you break down on a smart motorway without a hard shoulder, you’re three times more likely to be killed or seriously injured than on one with a hard shoulder’

The programme repeats this often-quoted statistic but omits important context. Most incidents (96.1%) across the strategic road network are single vehicle collisions or incidents involving two or more moving vehicles. The rest of the collisions, which form a very small proportion of all incidents (3.9%), involve moving vehicles colliding with stopped vehicles. These types of collisions happen on all roads and the highest rates are on A-roads.

Small datasets can be very sensitive to small changes (see page 50). As stopped collisions are a small proportion of all collisions across all roads, these should always be considered within a broader context, especially when it comes to media claims such as smart motorways without a hard shoulder are ‘three times more dangerous to break down on than those with an emergency lane’.

‘There is no hard shoulder to keep you safe’

Reinstating hard shoulders would remove vital road capacity; congestion would increase significantly with the potential consequence of drivers choosing less safe roads away from the motorway network.

The hard shoulder is perceived to be a place of safety but, in reality, one in 20 motorway fatalities occur there. Emergency areas are safer than hard shoulders. Emergency areas have orange surfacing, are set back from live traffic lanes and have an emergency phone which connects directly to our regional control rooms, so help can be arranged. Based on the latest safety data, there have been no deaths in emergency areas.

Emergency services access

We work closely with the emergency services and while we weren’t asked to respond to this point, it’s important to state we don’t take the decision to close lanes lightly, but when we do, drivers must obey the closure.

A Red X signal is there for the safety of everyone on the road – including people in difficulty, traffic officers, recovery and emergency services helping them, and all other road users besides.

Thankfully, most drivers do comply with the signals but those who don’t put themselves and others at risk.

Unplanned outages, including power cuts

We have well-rehearsed contingency plans for both planned and unplanned outages. These include lowering speed limits, increasing patrols by our traffic officers, enhanced monitoring of CCTV, and using pre-positioned vehicle recovery to speed up attendance and clearance of stranded vehicles.

On each of our schemes there are multiple power connections. Power cuts are normally very localised and only affect a single connection that limits technology connected to them. So, while we prefer not to suffer any power loss, when they do occur, they only impact a small area and not a whole scheme. We respond by increasing traffic officer patrols in the affected area and working with the respective electricity Distribution Network Operator (DNO) to restore power as quickly as possible.

We have taken the decision to move to metered power supplies on smart motorways which will provide real time information so that we can act more quickly to mitigate against any loss of technology as well as driving a quicker response from the DNO to restore power. The perceived increase in reported unplanned power outages reflects the important role our technology plays in helping people feel safe and enhanced data recording which began in April 2023.

Planned maintenance

Most of our planned updates or outages – as they are sometimes known – take place overnight and at weekends when traffic is at its lightest. As with any form of technology, there is a need to regularly update it to ensure it continues to work effectively.

Contrary to what was stated on the programme, with planned outages, which are necessary to update elements of our traffic management systems, we proactively advise drivers of this and the measures we are taking to keep people safe, such as on digital channels as well as variable message signs on the strategic road network. With unplanned outages we aim to inform drivers using variable message signs displayed ahead of any affected section of road.

Performance of Stopped Vehicle Detection technology (SVD)

The programme stated figures from this report (pages 32/33) that ‘in 2022 there were 2,331 faults on the radar system’ and ‘the average length of the fault was more than five days’. The majority of faults were resolved in 48 hours. A radar fault doesn’t always mean that the radar itself is faulty; a fault will be generated if it’s not been possible to communicate with the device for a period of 15 minutes. More than half of ‘faults’ were marked as closed within 8 hours. Whenever a fault has been logged and reoccurs, the case stays open for a period of 15 days and any reoccurrence of a fault in that period will give the impression of a continuous fault.

Following improvements made to Stopped Vehicle Detection technology (SVD) we are now meeting targets for detection rates. SVD availability from April 2023 through to the end of March 2024 was 98.3% - above the 98% target.

SVD was retrofitted to all our all lane running schemes (ALR) and completed in September 2022. Since its implementation, the system has detected more than 2,000 vehicles each month that have stopped in a live lane and sets signs automatically to warn approaching drivers of the hazards. Having SVD alerts us to stopped vehicles, automatically setting signs and enabling us to deploy traffic officers to the scene. Our national average attendance time remains under the 10-minute target. This is comparable to response times for highest priority calls to the emergency services.

SVD performance and ‘ground truthing’, as ORR set out in its December 2023 annual assessment of safety performance on the strategic road network (Page 37, 2.85): ‘National Highways responded positively to the concerns we raised in our 2022 safety report that stopped vehicle detection on all lane running motorways was not meeting performance requirements. Targets for detection rate, false detection rate, and time to detect are now being met but the company now needs to focus on expanding its analysis to understand how it can fully optimise stopped vehicle detection performance.’

When we implemented SVD, we designed it to have some overlap between radar sensors.

Traffic management system

Our traffic management system helps us operate the network by setting signs and signals, detecting stopped vehicles and viewing CCTV. This supports the four million journeys that – on average – take place on our network every day.

For every incident we set multiple signs and signals. With these spaced at between 1,000m and 1,500m, even when there are faults on one device, we are able to utilise another.

We are investing £105 million to improve the resilience of our operational technology systems, including warning signs, speed control signs (signals), CCTV and MIDAS (Motorway Incident Detection and Automatic Signaling) on ALR sections to 97% availability.

Operating the technology

We continue to meet our target to set signals within three minutes from the creation of an incident log or request for signals. For vehicles that stop in a live lane on an ALR section, we are setting signs and signals to protect road users within 90 seconds for 94% of incidents and within three minutes for the remainder.

There is a misconception about CCTV cameras in the programme. It’s important to state that CCTV is not routinely used for monitoring. It is used to help us verify reported incidents / events and respond to them.

We use SVD and MIDAS as automated systems to detect events such as stopped vehicles, queuing traffic and congestion and automatically set signs or signals to warn and inform drivers and adjust speeds to smooth traffic flows.

We have well-rehearsed procedures to deal with technical issues and protocols for when individual elements of the system are not available. The temporary unavailability of CCTV at a scene because of a technical issue, for example, does not prevent the setting of signs and signals to keep road users informed about potential hazards ahead. Indeed, we encourage staff to proactively identify any faults in the system even if the issues do not affect road users.

We also do not repair or replace obsolete pieces of equipment that do not support a safety feature as this would be a waste of public money. Instead, we remove them when there is an opportunity to do so, at a time when it does not cause disruption to road users.

Our staff are passionate about their jobs, and we acknowledge the frustrations with system issues. We ensure any staff concerns are listened to and that they are fully supported in their roles.

Rollout of 150 additional emergency refuges

We are fulfilling the commitment of building at least 150 emergency areas as quickly and efficiently as possible. This forms of part of a £900m investment to make people feel safer. When completed, this will see nearly 50% more emergency areas across the ALR network compared to January 2022. More information is available here.

Thirteen additional emergency areas were constructed in 2022: five on the M6 in Staffordshire and a further eight on the M1 across Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. These projects were already in construction, so it made sense to do this work at the same time.

A programme approach will be followed for the remainder of the national emergency area retrofit programme. This takes more time upfront to design and plan, but it substantially speeds up overall delivery. Currently construction is already under way on 12 more emergency areas on the M1 across South Yorkshire and Derbyshire, 12 on the M6 in Cheshire, 54 on the M1 and M5 motorways in the Midlands. A further 52 further emergency areas will begin construction later this month on the M25 and surrounding motorways in the South East.

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