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Perception or reality - the challenge facing Highways England to improve safety on smart motorways

After the release of the annual road safety statistics and yesterday's Transport Select Committee grilling of the senior Highways England team we ask, will there be trouble ahead on our new smart motorways?

A little time has now passed since the release of the British EuroRAP Results 2019 and there has now been time for them to be reviewed by all the different interested parties.

Overall there seems to have been little progress, with the number of deaths on Britain’s roads changing little since 2011. However, within these disappointing statistics there is a very different picture emerging between the UK’s constituent countries.

Since 2015, fatalities and serious injuries have fallen by 6-7% in Scotland, but a similar comparative figure for Wales shows a rise of nearly 40%. Whilst in England figures are twisted slightly by the split of the road network into strategic and major classification. When England’s networks of strategic and major roads are combined the risk is 15 fatal and serious crashes per billion vehicle kilometres – safer than the equivalent Welsh network (18) but not as safe as Scotland’s (13).

We took a look at why and how Scotland are possibly doing better than others in another blog which centered around the way funding has been devolved into the regions.

More recently there has been plenty of press about the smart motorway programme (SMP) and the introduction of all lane running (ALR) as Highways England continue to assess the safety statistics amid growing press and public concern.

Highways England has a key performance indicator to reduce the number of KSIs on the strategic road network (SRN) by 40% by 2020, against a baseline of the 2005-09 average. However, this baseline and therefore the 2020 KSI target have now been adjusted to take into account changes in reporting methods that are believed to have increased the number of injuries classified as serious.

Although unadjusted KSI numbers rose between 2015 and 2017, in its latest annual assessment of Highways England’s performance, regulator the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), said the adjusted data showed a 32% reduction on the baseline, which ‘puts Highways England on the straight-line trajectory required to meet its target’

This, in a way, all sounds like good news but there are growing Government, press and public concerns around the safety of drivers on smart motorways. A recent AA survey found only one in ten drivers felt safe on ALR parts of the smart motorway schemes compared to a traditional motorway. Further statistics showed a fall in trust of the standard distances between Emergency Refuge Areas (ERAs), with calls for new ALR schemes to be scrapped.

This is not something currently being considered by Highways England who continue to state that comparable safety statistics between ALR and conventional motorways remain at similar levels. This goes against the public’s perception. And perhaps the devil is in the detail here. Public perception could well be just through fear that no one wants to break down in a live running lane and be left stranded or cause an incident. The other element of fear could well be coming from the increase in lane changing that occurs across four running lanes and the research conducted by Atkins even shows that since the outset of all lane running the occurrences of unsafe lane changing have increased. Hardly remarkable given there are four lanes, more places to look and arguably more traffic. But perhaps it goes some way to explaining the feeling of discomfort and lack of safety concern that users are experiencing.

So how can Highways England win round the press and public that smart motorways are as safe as others?

They have already stated that all new ALR schemes after March 2020 will have a stopped vehicle detection (SVD) solution in operation. And that this will be retrofitted to existing roads after the past three years of testing. This is good news, but there is a lack of options on the technology that will be used and some vagueness on the timelines to complete all the work. In yesterday's Select Committee meeting it was admitted that with only one supplier it was proving hard to scale up the rollout of the solution.

However, there are other ideas that could be considered by Highways England to help in the short to medium term.

The space invader education campaign, where drivers were encouraged to keep their distance from the car in front was a big success. Perhaps this could be reviewed and re-launched with the specific intent of educating drivers on how to use ALR areas of the motorway? This would have the double benefit of education on the need for adequate space between cars in any lane but also emphasise the need to be vigilant to any accidents or stationary cars that may be in front of them.

Earlier this year, an RAC study found that as many as 23% of vehicles were driving through the red X signs indicating that a lane is closed on a smart motorway. Apart from being slightly incomprehensible (how many drivers see a big red X as being something that is OK?) it also shows that education campaigns need to be ongoing and not just when a new stretch of smart motorway opens to drivers.

Even if these ideas are not quite right, then the need to continue to educate drivers on how to use ALR is a clear and pressing requirement for Highways England to address.

Another aspect to consider is how to add safety features on the roads about to be built, either in the next two years or as part of RIS2 funding plans. There are plenty of safety solutions already in the marketplace that could work on a smart motorway, but it is best they are specified at the design stage. Once the work starts then it is very difficult from a budget and time perspective to add new kit to the schedule.

Ideas such as Clearview’s SolarLite studs could be used on ERAs to provide clear delineation between the fourth lane and the refuge area itself. Alternatively using the existing MIDAS technology to not only detect traffic but for it to then trigger intelligent studs to indicate if a lane is closed could be considered.

Clearview has also provided slip road queue detection schemes on various motorways which could continue to be rolled out to good effect on high use areas of the network. Reducing the risk of collisions on the approach to and on a slip road will help make the road safer for all users.

As a final idea in this blog, perhaps Highways England should consider the advances made in crowdsourced journey time technology. By monitoring live data on journey times on the road network this can give operators a live and very quick heads up on developing situations. Clearview has created an award-winning journey time solution that enables greater amounts of road to be monitored for the money. Transport Scotland was able to increase their coverage of the Scottish road network from around 250 stretches of road to over 900 using the software. It also provides colour enhanced map views and programmable alerts to changing journey times which can be used in conjunction with SMP signs and other systems to alert drivers to an incident ahead of them.

Whilst the above is clearly just some examples of how Clearview can help with the challenge Highways England is facing, it does illustrate the existing breadth of ideas that could be deployed on the motorway network to help solve both the real and perceived problems.

Through a combination of both education, new installations today and safety solutions built into future plans, we are confident Highways England can achieve their key performance indicator to reduce the number of KSIs on the SRN by 40% by 2020.

So, will there be trouble ahead? Or will we be able to face the music and drive? (Apologies to Frank).

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