Smart motorway ‘danger’ as control of signs lost for almost 2 hours

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Staff managing one of the nation’s busiest smart motorways were left unable to control signs for almost two hours on a busy Saturday afternoon due to a technical issue, it has been revealed.

It has been claimed by a whistleblower that motorists’ lives were put at risk as a result of the key safety technology failure, but National Highways bosses stressed that “well-rehearsed procedures” were put in place and no emergency incidents were reported during the outage.

A second, separate incident also led to the loss of radar technology called “stopped vehicle detection” along an eight-mile smart motorway stretch of the busy M6 in Cheshire, but that was caused by a localised power outage, the Manchester Evening News can reveal.

National Highways said it “temporarily lost the ability” to set motorway signs and signals in Greater Manchester Yorkshire and the North East, the Midlands and the South West. The incident happened at 12.35pm last Saturday, February 11, revealing an ‘issue with roadside technology’ that lasted short of two hours. 

“This was resolved after one hour and 45 minutes,” said National Highways in a statement. “All signs that were already set, stayed on, and we took additional measures including increased patrols by traffic officers. There were no reported incidents during this time and there was no loss of Stopped Vehicle Detection or CCTV.”

The second issue was reported just after rush-hour on Monday of this week, between junctions 18 and 19 of the M6, Middlewich and Holmes Chapel to the M56 motorway.

That led to the loss of the stopped vehicle detection system, and the setting of warning signs and signals, for an hour and 45 minutes from 10.15am.

The radar technology, installed last year, enables stationary cars, vans and HGVs, or accidents, to be detected within seconds inside control rooms. Units went live on the M62 smart motorway last April between junction 10 at the Croft interchange and junction 12 at the Eccles interchange, a section which uses the hard shoulder as a live lane.

National Highways said the so-called SVD technology enables warning signs on motorways to be quickly set, including red-coloured ‘X’ signals to close lanes. Speed limits can also be adjusted and displayed on signs.

On the M6, National Highways said power was restored by Electricity North West at 12 noon and an alternative CCTV monitoring network was used while the system was down.

“On Monday, February 13, a localised power outage at 10.15am resulted in the loss of Stopped Vehicle Detection, signs and signals on the M6 between junctions 18 and 19,” said bosses. “Power was restored by Electricity North West at 12 noon. The outage didn’t affect any other part of our road network. There were no reported incidents during this time. During the outage we took additional measures, including increased patrolling by our traffic officers. We were also able to carry out active monitoring of CCTV using an alternative system from our Regional Operations Centre.”

Andrew Page-Dove, Operational Control Director at National Highways, said: “We have well-rehearsed procedures to deal with any issues which arise on our motorways. These issues were resolved quickly, and where necessary we took additional measures to limit any impact on drivers or traffic flow such as increased patrols and CCTV monitoring.”

The whistleblower claimed police, local authorities and contractors working on motorways were all alerted to the situations. National Highways, however, denied their claims the Saturday outage was caused by a failure of the ‘Dynac’ system, which runs the technology. “This was exceptionally dangerous,” said the whistleblower.

National Highways says on its website SVD technology is used to detect stationary vehicles. All motorways where hard shoulders have been permanently converted to a live lane have the radar-based technology in place, which works to alert motorists to dangers ahead.

The radar units are installed at the sides of motorways and monitor flow in both directions. It was claimed the new technology would detect stopped vehicles 21 times faster than the previous average of seven minutes. But National Highways chief executive Nick Harris told MPs this month that the Government-owned company was aiming to meet ‘very challenging’ performance specifications for SVD technology by July after a report by the Office of Rail and Road in December last year revealed it was ‘not working as well as it should’.

Around 10 per cent of England’s motorway network is made up of smart motorways, but there have been long-standing safety fears, following fatal incidents in which vehicles stopped in live lanes were hit from behind.

National Highways, however, insists the roads are safer than conventional motorways.

The Department for Transport has now halted the development of new smart motorways until five years of safety data has been collected for schemes introduced before 2020.

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