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Smart motorways: 1 in 10 safety cameras ‘not working’, undercover probe finds

Highways agency urged to reopen all hard shoulders immediately, pending a review

Andy Gregory
Monday 27 September 2021 13:38 BST
The M3 smart motorway near Longcross in Surrey
The M3 smart motorway near Longcross in Surrey (PA)

The government is investigating “as a matter of urgency” after an undercover probe cast further questions over the safety of England’s smart motorway network, claiming that one in 10 safety cameras on the roads were found to be faulty, obscured with mist or facing the wrong way.

The findings on Monday “confirm many of the fears” previously raised over smart motorways, the AA’s president Edmund King suggested, as Labour accused National Highways of “putting lives at risk needlessly” and called for all hard shoulders to be instantly reinstated, pending a review.

On smart motorways, the hard shoulder is used as another live traffic lane, with this longstanding safety feature now replaced on some 400 miles of English highways by a network of cameras, sensors and electronic signs, used to identify emergencies and close any stretches of road where hazards occur.

For years, annual government data has suggested that smart motorways – which often use variable speed limits – are as safe, or more so, than conventional highways, and ministers have recently committed to converting a further 300 miles by 2025, reportedly at a cost of £1.2bn.

But with 53 people having died on the roads between 2015 and 2019, analysis by campaigners has suggested that drivers who break down on stretches of motorway where the hard shoulder has been removed are actually at three times greater risk of tragic consequences than on normal motorways.

More than 19,000 people have broken down in live lanes in the past two years, according to official figures, with some allegedly left waiting as long as 17 minutes for help.

Speaking before a committee of MPs in July, National Highways chief executive Nick Harris insisted there is “more than 100 per cent CCTV coverage” on smart motorways, which “allows for a number of cameras to be not functioning at any given time”, with 99 per cent of cameras typically available.

But during an “audit” on 17 September, the Daily Mail claimed that nearly half the cameras on one of the M25’s busiest stretches were failing, with control room staff left unable to check reports of broken-down vehicles – which could potentially raise the risk of motorists being stranded in lanes remaining open to high-speed traffic.

According to the paper, its reporter spent six weeks undercover at National Highways’ east regional operational control room in South Mimms, Hertfordshire, which is responsible for sections of smart motorways on the M25, M1 and M4. These included 30 “coaching shifts” working as an operator under the watch of a more experienced team member.

The ensuing report published on Monday describes a situation in which “diligent staff ... try their hardest to keep people safe, only to be let down by crumbling technology”. With some machinery reportedly dating back to 2004, several staff members appear resigned to technological issues – while another labelled smart motorways “a scam”.

During the reporter’s first shift at one of England’s six control centres, a systems failure reportedly left staff unable to implement vital lane closures or change mandatory speed limits for more than half an hour.

On the same day, one operator was reportedly unable to find a broken down vehicle on the M25 because the relevant camera was stuck facing a field, and joked: “If you’re going to crash on a field you’ll probably be alright, we’ll find you. But if you’re going to crash on the motorway we probably won’t.”

A fatal crash on the M25 on 23 August, which left four people dead, was allegedly not caught by any camera. National Highways said it could not comment on an ongoing police investigation.

The cameras can become “condensed on the inside and you can't see much”, one operator reportedly said. “Sometimes they just won’t move or it won’t focus so you can see something really close-up, but if you zoom out it's just like shapes.”

A team manager having difficulty with controls for the safety camera network, in a command office described as where staff work “if we have something serious happen”, was reported as saying the difficulties “unfortunately” happened regularly, adding: “We get a lot of faulty crap.”

In an email to staff at the control room briefing them about Insulate Britain protests, an operations manager reportedly wrote: “We appreciate there are some CCTV that is not working or black spots but this is about asking you to just do the best you can in staying vigilant.”

But National Highways said the term “black spots” referred to areas outside the network where protesters were believed to have been gathering prior to obstructing the road and did not refer to a section of the carriageway.

Meanwhile one operator in the job for more than a decade, reportedly said: “There's so much trouble going on at the moment, with the public quite rightly questioning whether they’re safe or not. It's safe if there's technology and if the technology works, but if it's not bloody working ...”

Pointing to a car sitting on the M25 for over half an hour, according to the Mail, he added: “He's in a live lane. That should've flashed up on here to let us know that he's there. But he could be sat there for hours and we wouldn't even know about it, and if we don't know, we haven't set signals.

“So now he's in a live lane with traffic bombing up behind him. That's when a truck comes along and hits him and we go, ‘Oh well, we didn't know he was there’.”

While National Highways said it did not recognise the figures from the Mail’s probe, its chief executive said the agency recognised that “concerns continue to be raised about smart motorways”.

“These upgrades work as a system, with technology, infrastructure and people working together, and data shows fatalities are less likely than on conventional motorways,” Mr Harris said. “If there is a problem with any one part of the system, other parts are activated to help keep traffic moving safely.

“Our traffic officers work around the clock, every day of the year to help drivers and deal with incidents. We are, however, investigating these allegations as a matter of urgency.”

CCTV is just one part of the smart motorway system, in addition to radar and other systems, and National Highways said it has well-rehearsed procedures to deal with technical issues and protocols for when individual elements of the system are not available

But Labour’s shadow transport secretary Jim McMahon accused the government agency of “failing in its duty to keep people safe by putting lives at risk needlessly”, adding: “The fact they are aware of this and they continue to roll out smart motorways, they continue to refuse to reinstate the hard shoulder, is I’m afraid unforgivable.

“The main thing for me is just how easy this is to put right pending a review – press a button and put the red X on the hard shoulder. It’s that easy and it can be done today.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “Road safety is always our top priority. We take these claims very seriously and will ensure National Highways conducts a thorough investigation.

“It remains that smart motorways are among the safest in the UK, with the data showing that fatalities are less likely than on conventional ones, and we will continue working to build public confidence in them.”

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