September 2, 2021

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Smart motorways

Whistleblower claims smart motorway system failure

It’s been claimed that computer systems controlling signs on smart motorways crashed three times in four days, meaning signs across hundreds of miles of motorway could not be changed. 

Smart motorwayA whistleblower has claimed staff operating England’s smart motorways are ‘petrified’ of road users being killed following a string of computer crashes, according to a report by Safer Highways.

Three system failures in April meant that across hundreds of miles of motorway, the digital signs which inform drivers of speed limits or lane closures were left ‘unusable’.

The signs, also called gantries, could not be changed along parts of the M1, M4, M5 and M62, leading an insider at National Highways (formerly England Highways) to warn that ‘someone is going to get killed.’

The Sunday Telegraph spoke to the member of staff at National Highways, who said the system failed in April and that a Freedom of Information request to National Highways, the Government-owned company, shows two control centres covering Yorkshire, the North East and South West of England were hit by a computer “bug” and server problem disabling digital control of signs for a total of eight hours.

The whistleblower told the Telegraph: “We have had enough.

“The system keeps breaking down, meaning we can’t control our signs and signals on motorways, including smart motorways.

“One day, we could not access signs and signals for up to seven hours. So, there was information telling drivers lanes were closed when they were actually open, and speed limits were in place when they actually were not.

“Control room staff are petrified because it feels like the whole system is a ticking time bomb.

“Some will quit and others will go off sick because we feel we can’t keep people on the network safe. The system is broken.”

Dynac, the computer system controlling the signs and gantries on the smart motorways, has been dubbed ‘Die Now’ by staff over fears that further system failures could cause fatal traffic accidents.

Reporter Steve Bird writes that ‘Dynac, the software used to set signs and signals, including the red X on overhead gantries which closes lanes in which motorists have broken down, was rendered “unusable”, according to documents, however, he adds, it transpires that Dynac, the Austrian-made software programme, is not to blame and the problems were often found in the myriad of high-tech systems running alongside it.

One document classified “sensitive” records a manager stating how that April system crash “impacts on customer and traffic officer safety in not being able to set signs and signals to protect live lane incidents”.’

The succession of computer crashes came as Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was announcing the continued roll-out of the smart motorways – which see the removal of the hard shoulder in favour of a fourth lane.

Procedures to deal with technical issues

National Highways Regional Director Andrew Page-Dove said: “Our motorways are among the safest roads in the world, designed to be so even without the use of technology, while our traffic management systems provide an extra layer of support for road users, using a range of measures including CCTV and variable speed limits to keep traffic flowing safely.

“We also have well-rehearsed procedures to deal with technical issues and our traffic officers are always on hand to help drivers and deal with incidents safely. We also recognise the pressures our employees are under performing vital tasks, which is why support systems and a range of 24/7 employee assistance options are available to them.”

This article was originally published on Safer Highways.

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