Smart motorway outage: are smart motorway safety systems working, why did they fail?

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Calls for rethink on all-lane running roads as stopped vehicle detection and sign controls are put out of action by system failure

Safety systems across large parts of England’s smart motorway network stopped working for two hours during rush hour on Wednesday.

National Highways confirmed that the Dynac system, which controls stopped vehicle detection, signs and signals, stopped working at around 8.30am and was not back online until around 10.30am. It said it was now investigating the cause of the outage.

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The fault affected the whole of England’s smart motorway network except in the East and South East. Motoring groups called the unplanned outage “deeply concerning” and warned it had put motorists’ lives at risk.

Smart motorways rely on the Dynac system to monitor roads for problems and adjust speed limits and lane closures in response to issues such as broken down vehicles. Without the stopped vehicle detection radar system, National Highways had to rely on CCTV and increase road patrols to monitor traffic across the network. It said there were no major incidents or serious congestion during the incident.

National Highways operational control director Andrew Page-Dove said: “We are urgently investigating an unplanned outage of our traffic management system. Engineers worked hard to get the system back online as soon as possible and we apologise for any inconvenience caused.

“We have well-rehearsed procedures to deal with issues which arise. We rapidly took steps to help ensure the safety of road users such as increased patrols and CCTV monitoring.”

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AA president Edmund King suggested it was “time to go back to the drawing board” with smart motorways. He commented: “So-called smart motorways cease to be smart when the technology fails, and drivers in dangerous live-lane situations are left as sitting ducks.

“Road users can only have confidence in the systems if the technology works. That’s clearly not the case with the outage. Some 38% of breakdowns on ‘smart’ motorways occur in live lanes as often there is nowhere to go and these situations, with or without technology, are terrifying.”

RAC head of roads policy Nicholas Lyes said: “This is deeply concerning. Drivers and our patrols rely on these systems to keep them safe in the event of a breakdown on a live lane.”

The safety of smart motorways has repeatedly been called into question, but National Highways insists that systems such as stopped vehicle detection make them as safe, if not safer, than traditional motorways with hard shoulders. Previously, the Office for Road and Rail criticised National Highways for missing a series of targets around stopped vehicle detection rates and response times.

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The outage - the second since October 2022 - came as the government was urged to end the use of all-lane running smart motorways. Labour MP for Rotherham Sarah Champion, whose constituent Jason Mercer was killed on a smart motorway in South Yorkshire in 2019, said there had been a “series of outages” on the network but the roads continued to be built, despite the Government ordering a pause in new developments.

“By spring of this year, four new sections of all-lane-running motorways will begin operation,” she said. While the Government dithers, constituencies like mine continue to host death trap roads.”

Smart motorways rely on cameras and overhead signs to monitor and control traffic on roads with no hard shoulderSmart motorways rely on cameras and overhead signs to monitor and control traffic on roads with no hard shoulder
Smart motorways rely on cameras and overhead signs to monitor and control traffic on roads with no hard shoulder | Adobe Stock

Roads minister Richard Holden said new stretches of smart motorway which had been under construction before the pause were continuing because “it was felt by National Highways it would be more detrimental” to stop them “and perhaps cause more incidents than if they continued as planned”.

He acknowledged that the risk of a collision involving a broken-down vehicle was a “major concern” for drivers.

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