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A section of the M1 motorway

UK rollout of smart motorway safety tech brought forward

Image credit: Alamy

Transport secretary Grant Shapps has announced that the measure aimed at boosting smart motorway safety will be completed ahead of schedule.

The Cabinet minister told MPs that radar technology to detect drivers who break down in live lanes will be rolled out across the entire network by the end of next year. Initially, an ‘action plan’ on this launched by Shapps in March last year sought a deadline of March 2023.

Highways England figures show the Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) upgrade has so far only been installed on three sections, totalling 37 miles out of the 500-mile smart motorway network. 

Shapps told the Commons’ Transport Select Committee that the work will be sped up after he “put pressure on” Highways England. This followed after a coroner last month concluded that the roads “present an ongoing risk of future deaths”.

Sheffield coroner David Urpeth said the primary cause of death of Jason Mercer, 44, and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, on the M1 in South Yorkshire in June 2019 was the careless driving of lorry driver Prezemyslaw Szuba, who ploughed into their vehicles as they stood stationary in lane one following a minor shunt. But when recording a conclusion of unlawful killing, Urpeth said: “I find, as a finding of fact, it is clear a lack of hard shoulder contributed to this tragedy.”

Shapps told the committee he “inherited” smart motorways when he became transport secretary in July 2019 and pledged to get “get rid of confusions”. These include “insane” dynamic hard shoulders, which switch between being used for emergencies and live traffic depending on demand.

The Cabinet minister said hard shoulders cannot be added to all smart motorways as that would require “the equivalent land of 700 Wembley Stadium football pitches”. Instead, he committed to “making sure that the motorways we have in this country are safer than the motorways that came before them”, adding that he wanted to make all our motorways a lot safer.

SVD technology is designed to detect a stopped vehicle in a live lane in around 20 seconds through radar units monitoring motorway traffic in both directions. An alert is sent to a control room operator who can view the incident on a camera, activate lane closure signs on gantries, and dispatch personnel.

RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said it was “good news” that the installation will be finished ahead of schedule, but warned that the system “depends on other drivers seeing and obeying red ‘X’ closed-lane signs”.

“If drivers don’t see these because gantries or verge-mounted signs are too far apart, then there’s still a risk of collision with a stationary vehicle,” Lyes explained. 

In other news, automotive technology specialists Road Angel confirmed that it would bring forward plans to release its new verbal warning alerts, its 'Pure' device, which includes a smart motorway subscription option connected to the Department of Transport, for lane closures in April this year.

“It is plain that there is a problem but we’re not diving into a blame debate,” said Road Angel’s director Gary Digva. "This is about making the roads as safe as possible and saving lives.”

He added: “We have the technology to make a crucial difference because this is something we’ve been concerned about for a long time. Our experience has led us to see smart motorways as a major potential risk and we’ve been designing our products to mitigate it for years now.

“Our lane closure alerts feature was scheduled for later this year but we are now working hard to bring that forward as soon as practically possible because we think it will make a major difference. The debate may rumble on for a long time yet so now is the time for action.”

Road Angel’s current smart motorway subscription monitors your location, speed, and the change of speed of the smart motorway, so if the smart motorway speed changes so does the Road Angel. It then issues a visual and verbal warning.

Last month, an analysis by Highways England found that less than 5 per cent of England’s smart motorway network has installed radar technology to detect drivers who break down in live lanes. Last year, Helena Pozniak explored the benefits, and issues, of smart motorways.

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