ORR: National Highways Must Deliver Better Performance

UK: The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has said that National Highways, a government-owned company, is on track to deliver its overall safety target for the strategic road network (SRN) in England.

National Highways has also met its Stopped Vehicle Detection technology installation targets. However, in its first annual assessment of safety performance on the strategic road network in England, the ORR has found that the system is not yet meeting performance expectations.

The assessment looks at the operation and effectiveness of the end-to-end safety system on England’s ‘smart motorways’.

It evaluates the performance of National Highways in 2021 against its key performance indicator safety target. The report also includes the early findings from the ORR’s work regarding Transport Select Committee smart motorways-related recommendations.

The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has published its first report on safety on the strategic road network
The Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has published its first report on safety on the strategic road network

The ORR report contains three central messages:

Road casualties on the SRN: National Highways looks to be on target to reach its key safety target to halve the number of people killed or seriously injured on the SRN by 2025, compared to a 2005–09 baseline. In 2021, 1,857 people were killed or seriously injured on the strategic road network. That’s 41.1 percent less compared to the baseline average of 3,206 people for the 2005–09 period. This 2021 shows a 12.3 percent reduction to the 2019 figure, but a 29.6 percent increase to the 2020 figure. The ORR also takes the view that casualties could increase given the expected increase in traffic levels in 2022, where traffic numbers in 2021 were still affected by the pandemic.

Systems on smart motorways: stopped vehicle detection (SVD) technology uses radar. It is on every all lane running (ALR) smart motorway where the hard shoulder has been permanently converted to a traffic lane. National Highways had this SVD technology in place on every ALR smart motorway by the end of September this year, which is six months ahead of the original date set. The purpose of this technology is to reduce the risks associated with stopped vehicles in lanes of live traffic.

The ORR noted that the increased pace of delivery meant National Highways had had limited opportunity to apply any lessons learned. The actual performance of stopped vehicle detection was, it said, falling short of the performance requirements National Highways had set itself.

Currently, for example, false detection rates on ALR smart motorways across all National Highways regions, are still “substantially above the required minimum”. National Highways’ specification states that false alerts are not to constitute more than 15 percent of all alerts but performance ranged from 63.8–83.5 percent across the regions.

National Highways is aiming to make rapid improvements to the SVD technology to get to the required performance levels by the end of June 2023. The ORR says it will observe progress and take further action, should National Highways fall short.

Evaluating the success of the stocktake action plan: the ORR is tasked with assessing the efficacy of the 20-point Smart Motorway Action Plan implemented by the government in 2020. The ORR obtained the first performance data in September 2022, whereupon it began its analysis in line with the recommendations from the TSC.

The ORR says in its report that it is too early to draw any firm conclusions yet on whether

  • reducing the frequency of live lane stops
  • reducing the duration of live lane stops
  • improving driver perception of safety on smart motorways

has been successful.

The ORR did note that National Highways had shown much improvement in the attendance times for traffic officers and in September 2022 National Highways achieved a national average response time of 9 minutes 49 seconds for the first time – against a target of a ten-minute national average response time on smart motorways, where the existing spacing between safe places to stop in an emergency is more than one mile.

John Larkinson, Chief Executive of the ORR, said:

“Our previous work on smart motorway data has shown that these roads are as safe as the motorways they replaced but the number of live lane breakdowns are higher.

“Having the SVD radar detection equipment in place sooner than planned has helped to reduce the duration of these breakdowns more quickly but it’s not working as well as it should.

“While it is still too early to have robust data, it’s clear National Highways needs to urgently improve its performance in this area.”

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