Smart motorways: 'Vital safety feature' fails dozens of times with longest outage lasting 10 hours
The Government abandoned its plans to build new smart motorways in April, claiming there is “a lack of confidence felt by drivers” following dozens of deaths, but said hard shoulders which have been removed along more than 230 miles of carriageway will not be reinstated.
National Highways has previously claimed they are the “safest roads” in the country and constantly monitored with a network of cameras and its stopped vehicle detection (SVD) system.
But that detection system has gone offline without warning 28 times since November 2021, according to figures obtained by a Freedom of Information request.
The longest unplanned SVD outage, between junctions 2 (Thorpe) and 4a (Fleet) on the M3 in September 2022, lasted 10 hours and 14 minutes.
There have also been 129 planned outages since March 2022 and 17 lasted at least four hours. Twenty-four of the outages took the system offline on all smart motorways.
Claire Mercer, whose husband Jason was killed near junction 34 on the M1, said the technology is “not reliable enough yet” and it is “absolutely terrifying” that people could become stranded on a busy carriageway.
The longest outage in Yorkshire occurred in November 2021, when the system went down for eight hours and two minutes on the M1, between junctions 32 (Thurcroft) and 35a (Stocksbridge) and junctions 39 (Wakefield) and 42 (Lofthouse).
The shortest unplanned outage, which lasted 15 minutes, occurred on the M1 between junctions 28 (Pinxton) and 31 (Aston) in November Last year.
Official figures show there were 495 deaths on motorways between 2015 and 2020 and 32 of those occurred on smart motorways with no hard shoulder.
But Ms Champion said the “shocking figures” reveal “just how often vital safety features are out of action”.
“The thought of breaking down on these roads continues to terrify me and despite repeatedly highlighting these risks with the Government, they continue to insist that these deadly roads are safe,” said the Labour MP.
“Each time the technology fails, drivers in broken down vehicles are sitting ducks waiting for help in a live lane.
“National Highways does not even notify motorists when systems are offline, denying them the chance to make an informed choice about using these roads.”
Ms Mercer, who is also calling for hard shoulders to be reinstated, said: “The technology is not reliable enough yet.
“The hard shoulder is a solid, tangible thing that doesn’t rely on bandwidth and human operators but they’ve taken it away.”
She added: “The very least they can do when the SVD technology is not working is close the first lane so we’ve got a hard shoulder.”
Her 44-year-old husband and Alexandru Murgeanu, 22, were hit by a lorry and killed on a stretch of M1 which did not have a hard shoulder, after they stopped in the left-hand lane to exchange insurance details following a minor collision near Sheffield in 2019.
It came after Nargis Begum died on a stretch of the M1 near Woodall Services which had no hard shoulder, when the Nissan Qashqai she was a passenger in broke down in September 2018.
The 62-year-old and her husband Mohammed Bashir, 69, waited for help by the car for 17 minutes before another vehicle collided with it.
Andrew Page-Dove, Operational Control Director at National Highways, said: “Safety is our highest priority. This technology was introduced as an enhancement to the safety features on smart motorways.
“During planned and unplanned outages we have well-rehearsed procedures including active monitoring of CCTV, reducing speed limits, deploying additional traffic officers, and arranging for recovery vehicles to be present to respond quickly to live lane stops.”