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Safety targets being missed on smart motorways, ORR finds

Deniz Huseyin
16 December 2022


National Highways is missing its own minimum safety targets for detecting stranded vehicles on all-lane running (ALR) smart motorways, states a new report from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR). Rates for Stationary Vehicle Detection (SVD), based on radar technology, in National Highways’ five regions with ALR smart motorways is between 59.6% and 79.6%, below its 80% target.

Across all National Highways’ regions with ALR smart motorways, false detection rates are substantially above the required maximum, ORR found. The company’s specification states that false alerts should be no higher than 15% of all alerts, but they ranged 63.8% to 83.5% across the regions. “This creates extra workload for operators; risks reducing operators’ and drivers’ confidence in the system (false alerts automatically trigger ‘Report of Obstruction’ messages on variable message signs ahead of alert locations); and, ultimately, could lead to real alerts being missed,” said the ORR.

The report also found that the required average time to detect stopped vehicles in less than 20 seconds is not being met. Four out of five of National Highways’ regions with ALR smart motorways are not meeting this requirement, achieving between 43 and 65 seconds, on average.

Also, National Highways is not achieving the availability performance targets of essential supporting systems. “The availability of variable message signs was below the 95% target set out in its performance requirements for the whole April 2022 to August 2022 period, and CCTV availability was also below 95% in August 2022, the most recent month of data available to us.”

National Highways “must take urgent action” to achieve the performance levels it has set, stated the ORR. The ORR has urged transport secretary Mark Harper to run a pilot scheme which re-instates the inside lane as a hard shoulder with a Red ‘X’. He should also launch a national lane discipline campaign – aimed at the ‘middle lane hogs’ – “in conjunction with the police, to get better use out of the capacity of the motorway and to make the network safer”.

This is the first annual assessment from the ORR of safety performance on the strategic road network (SRN) in England. This report includes the operation and effectiveness of the end-to-end safety system on England’s smart motorways.

ORR chief executive John Larkinson said: “Our previous work on smart motorway data has shown that these roads are as safe as the motorways they replaced but the number of live lane breakdowns are higher.

“Having the SVD radar detection equipment in place sooner than planned has helped to reduce the duration of these breakdowns more quickly but it’s not working as well as it should. While it is still too early to have robust data, it’s clear National Highways needs to urgently improve its performance in this area.”

Edmund King, AA president, said: “The ORR has confirmed that the radar system is not working effectively, which is a major concern for drivers.

“For ‘smart’ motorways to be truly smart and safe then the technology behind them must be fully effective. If there are doubts about the technology, then the motorways are not smart and we should revert to tried and tested methods.

“The radar system should be identifying 80% of stopped vehicles in a live lane and operators checking the alarms within 20 seconds. Neither of these targets have been met and it is simply unacceptable.

“As a result, vulnerable drivers have been left stranded in the most dangerous of places – the live lane of a motorway.”

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