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17 minutes to spot a live lane breakdown on a smart motorway

Live lane breakdowns on smart motorways

AA research discovers Highways England report showing that it takes an average 17 minutes to find a broken-down vehicle in a live lane

30 August 2019

The AA has discovered a report written by Highways England that highlights how long it takes to identify a vehicle broken down in a live lane of an All Lane Running (ALR) motorway when Stationery Vehicle Detection (SVD) systems are not in place.

The report, Stationary Vehicle Detection (published in March 2016) states that using data for breakdown live lane incidents for the M25 J25-26 ALR scheme, ‘reviewed CCTV footage to identify incidents where the event occurrence time could be recorded…our analysis found the average time…was 17 minutes and 1 second.’ 

Smart motorway

According to Highways England’s own analysis, stopping in a live lane of an ALR motorway more than triples the danger when compared to a traditional motorway with a continuous hard shoulder: 

‘A stationary live lane obstruction creates a particular hazard during off-peak conditions (when flows are low and speeds are high) due to the increased severity associated with collisions involving large speed differentials. This is captured in the ALR generic hazard log as hazard H135: “vehicle stops in a running lane – off peak”. Compared to the D3M design used as the safety baseline, the assumption in the hazard log is that the H135 risk increases by 216%, making it the fourth highest scoring residual hazard.’


What is Stationary Vehicle Detection?

SVD is a real-time radar system that can detect stopped vehicles across multiple lanes in all weathers. Once it identifies a stopped vehicle it sets off an alarm within the control centre which an operator investigates and takes necessary action by setting signals.

According to the report, the SVD radar system can detect live lane breakdown events an average of 16 minutes more quickly. 

3 minutes to set signal changes

The same report also highlights that Operation Centres have a three-minute window to set signal changes, like red ‘X’, once a vehicle has stopped in a live lane:

‘Key Performance indicator to set signs and signals within 3 minutes of an incident being verified. Assuming that once a broken down vehicle (or other incident) has been detected on the network by any means, the corresponding actions required to set signs and signals take the same amount of time regardless of the detection methods’.


The report from Highways England identifies that in ALR schemes where SVD technology does not exist, more than a third (36%) of live lane breakdowns took more than 15 minutes to find, with the longest taking more than an hour to discover on CCTV.

Stationary Vehicle Detection

A recent Freedom of Information request by the AA to Highways England* found that there are 135.1 carriageway miles of ALR in England, but that only 24.2 miles (M25 J5-6 and J23-27) are covered by SVD technology.

However, when responding to the Transport Select Committee in September 2016**, the Government stated that “As Highways England advised the Committee at the hearing, it is committed to implementing measures to further improve the performance of All Lane Running, which includes the introduction of stationary vehicle detection to all All Lane Running sections.”

The SVD for the M3 J2-4a will not be operational until 2021 and other schemes in development could be installed by 2022. Other schemes like the M4, the longest stretch of ALR, will use other emerging technology, but Highways England have not advised what this could be.


The AA has also learnt that 7% of the CCTV overlooking the motorway network is on ALR schemes. The cameras being used are called ‘Pan, Tilt and Zoom’ (PTZ), meaning that the cameras can only look in one direction of the motorway at a time. For example, should the camera be looking southbound and an incident happen northbound, the camera won’t spot the issue until it is turned to face the other way.

Edmund King, AA president says; “This is a truly shocking revelation and shows just how dangerous it can be breaking down in a live lane. This highlights why growing numbers of the public are justified in their safety concerns over the removal of the hard shoulder.

Until you are found by the camera you are a sitting duck
Edmund King, AA president

“Ultimately, until you are found by the camera you are a sitting duck.

“Taking three minutes to set the red ‘X’ is too long for someone in a broken-down vehicle to wait. Expecting someone to wait in a dangerous and life-threatening position for 20 minutes is simply inexcusable.

Expecting someone to wait in a dangerous and life-threatening position for 20 minutes is simply inexcusable
Edmund King, AA president

“The safer stationary vehicle detection technology should have been rolled out before any expansion of all lane running was even considered. We are now three years on since their fully throated commitment to installing stopped vehicle detection to all schemes but only 24 miles has the system in place.”

King continues; “The use of cameras has been sold to drivers on the premise that there is 100% coverage of the motorway. That is only true if the camera is pointing in the direction you are travelling

The use of cameras has been sold to drivers on the premise that there is 100% coverage of the motorway. That is only true if the camera is pointing in the direction you are travelling
Edmund King, AA president

“This smoke and mirrors approach to the removal of the hard shoulder has gone on long enough. There have been too many incidents, too many near misses and too many excuses as to why promises have been bent or broken.

“We must stop removing the hard shoulder immediately and double the number of emergency refuge areas already in place.”

* Response from Highways England to AA Freedom of Information request, August 2019:

1. The total number of cameras Highways England operate for the purposes of monitoring traffic in running lanes on conventional three lane plus hard shoulder motorways

As of July 2019, 5060 CCTV cameras are operational on all Highways England Motorways. It is not possible to determine which of these are on 3 lane conventional motorways as there is no annotation as to the number of lanes the motorway has at the site of the camera. Therefore, this could be a mixture of 2/3/4 lane motorways.

2. The total number of cameras Highways England operate for the purposes of monitoring traffic in running lanes on All Lane Running (ALR) motorways

  • Of the above number, 360 CCTV cameras operate in the ALR sections.

3. The proportion of ALR motorway miles that are:

  1. Continuously monitored though a fixed camera
  2. Intermittently/partially monitored through a steerable camera
  3. Not monitored by camera at all

All of our All Lane Running smart motorways have full CCTV coverage of the mainline carriageway. This includes infra-red emitters which means that the road is visible at night. These cameras are all “steerable” as are all PTZ (pan, tilt and zoom) cameras. This capability gives our operators greater awareness of what is happening on the road, particularly during an incident, and allows them to advise the emergency or recovery services more effectively. We use other devices, such as inductive loops in the carriageway or radars at the side of the road, as additional tools to alert us to traffic conditions. 

4. The proportion of ALR motorway miles currently monitored using Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) – please advise which ALR schemes have SVD in place

  • There are currently two schemes with SVD installed:
  • M25 J5-6, which has a carriageway length of 8.7 miles
  • M25 J23-27, which has a carriageway length of 15.5 miles
  • This makes a total of 24.2 miles of ALR that currently has SVD installed.
  • As of July 2019, the total carriageway length of ALR installed is:  135.1 miles 
  • Therefore, the proportion of current ALR with SVD in place is 18%.

5. The proportion of ALR motorway miles that will be monitored using SVD. Please advise by ALR scheme when these will be installed by.

  • Highways England’s commitment is that all ALR schemes will have SVD capability.
  • Our current approach is that radar-based SVD should be the default option incorporated into the design and construction of future schemes.
  • We are currently rolling out radar-based SVD to M3 J2-4a, which is currently scheduled to become operational by early 2021.


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