A report by the Office of Rail & Road suggests a large proportion of broken-down vehicles on smart motorways go undetected, leading to calls for improved technology 

Words: Paul Guinness

Although the roll-out of smart motorways was paused by the UK Government in 2022, the Office of Rail & Road (ORR) transport watchdog is urging National Highways to “urgently” improve the technology that detects when a vehicle has broken down on an all-lane running motorway.  

When the Government paused the building of any further motorways without a permanent hard shoulder, it committed to installing stopped vehicle detection (SVD) technology on every existing all-lane running smart motorway by March 2023. And although this target has already been achieved, a new report published by the ORR shows the actual performance of SVD is falling short of the performance requirements that National Highways set itself. 

The report shows that a third of broken-down vehicles are missed and that “false detection rates” of breakdowns are too high. Conservative MP, Iain Stewart, chair of the Transport Committee, which has previously highlighted concerns about smart motorways to the Government, said that the new data “will undermine trust that this system can work”.  

Stewart commented: “The statistics revealed [by the ORR] raise considerable concerns about the performance of National Highways in protecting drivers on smart motorways. This is putting lives at risk. The idea that in some regions of the country, less than 60 per cent of stopped vehicles were detected on smart motorways is chilling. In addition, the fact that in some areas it took over 60 seconds for a stopped vehicle to be detected is also deeply concerning. Every second counts when cars, coaches and lorries are driving at up to 70mph and there’s no hard shoulder.” 

Chief executive of the ORR, 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.” 

The ORR’s report states that National Highways is seeking rapid improvements to the SVD technology to achieve the required performance levels by the end of June 2023. The regulator said it is scrutinising the company’s progress and will take further action should it not appear to be on track to achieve the required improvements. 

What are your views on smart motorways? Have you experienced a motorway breakdown without access to a hard shoulder? Whatever your views or experiences, tell us about them via ccb.ed@kelsey.co.uk