UK’s smart motorways regularly stop working

2024/04/23 Innoverview Read

Amid ongoing debates about their safety, UK smart motorways continue to face scrutiny as new data reveals they frequently suffer from outages. Despite advanced technology, these disruptions undermine the system designed to safeguard drivers.

Smart motorways utilise radar and cameras to identify vehicles in distress and accordingly adjust lane signals to manage the flow of traffic. However, figures released through Freedom of Information requests by BBC Panorama show – between June 2022 and February 2024 – there were 397 occasions where these motorways experienced power losses, sometimes extending over days.

Significant incidents included:

  • Five-day outage at M6’s junction 18 in July 2023.

  • Five-day disruption at M62’s junction 22 in September 2023.

  • Three and a half days without power at M5’s junction 6 in December 2023.

The issues weren’t isolated, with the six months leading up to February 2024 alone recording 174 outages — nearly daily disruptions. The longest lasted 11 days at M4’s junction 14, notably a section of the motorway that still retains a hard shoulder.

The absence of hard shoulders on many stretches of smart motorways exacerbates the danger during these outages. Despite these concerns, National Highways maintained that reintroducing hard shoulders would worsen congestion and insisted that contingency plans are robust enough to handle such power failures.

National Highways noted an 89 percent detection rate for stationary vehicles by radar systems, albeit acknowledging 11 percent of stopped vehicles remain undetected. Further compromising reliability, the company’s own 2022 data indicated 2,331 radar system faults—with faults averaging over five days in length. A National Highways traffic officer anonymously confessed to Panorama a distrust in the radar, citing frequent failures.

Smart motorways, initially rolled out in 2010, have since been linked to at least 79 deaths. National Highways’ statistics suggest a threefold increase in the likelihood of fatality or serious injury if a vehicle breaks down on a smart motorway lacking a hard shoulder, compared to those that have it. 

In response to safety criticisms, the government in 2020 promised an escalation in the construction of emergency refuges—aiming to complete 150 by the following year. However, progress has been slow, with only 13 finished and another 34 underway.

The repeated technical failures challenge the claim that smart motorways improve safety, leaving many drivers sceptical of their benefits.

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