Smart motorway outage 'put lives in danger'

Stricken cars couldn’t be spotted or kept safe for two hours on major UK motorways after a system failure...

Smart motorway accident traffic

Drivers of broken-down cars were like ‘sitting ducks’ during a software failure that hit large parts of the UK’s smart motorway network, according to safety campaigners.

The problems affected the M5, M6, M62 and M60, as well as the M1 north of Northampton.

They caused signals to freeze and deactivated the stopped vehicle detection (SVD) system, which is designed to make sure broken-down vehicles are recovered quickly. These systems are vital on smart motorways because the hard shoulders can be used for traffic, rather than as a relatively safe place to stop.

Broken down car

The deactivation of the SVD system during the 22 February incident meant stopped cars were not detected automatically, so an alert would only be raised if they were spotted on CCTV or by a traffic patrol. Even when they had been seen, the system failure meant it was not possible to protect them by closing lanes using red X symbol displays above the road.

AA president Edmund King said the outage – which lasted from 8.30am to 10.30am on a week day – “put people’s lives at risk”.

That view was echoed by the RAC’s head of roads policy, Nicholas Lyes, who described it as “deeply concerning”. A National Highways spokesperson said the outage was the result of a software failure, but added that the service had not received any reports of any incidents or injuries as a result.

National Highways operational control director Andrew Page-Dove told the BBC that engineers had worked to repair the system “as soon as possible”. He said National Highways had increased patrols and CCTV monitoring within the affected area.

A similar outage happened on 26 October last year, and lasted for several hours.

There are currently more than 400 miles of smart motorways in England – they are intended to ease traffic congestion by using all available lanes, but they have faced scrutiny due to safety concerns. 

Smart motorways – what are they and how should I use them?

Last Autumn, National Highways admitted that one of four key smart motorway safety targets, which was scheduled for completion in September, had not yet been reached.

This was a requirement for emergency services to reach stranded vehicles within 10 minutes – in August 2022 the average response time fell 29sec short of the target.

However, data for September 2022 (compiled after the deadline had passed) revealed that the average response time reached 9mins 49sec.

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Read more: What are smart motorways? >>