This is how Highways England change motorway signs
Highways England granted Surrey Live exclusive access into their control room to find out, once and for all, just how are those electronic motorway signs set?
It’s almost a year since the M3 smart motorway section officially opened in July 2017.
Road users getting to grips with the electronic signage and new road layout has been reported on extensively.
Readers regularly send in dashcam footage, complaints and horror stories. Including footage of one car driver getting a little too close to a lorry due to the lack of hard shoulder.
One regular user of the M3 smart motorway section, Nic Gee, repeatedly got in touch with us to air his concerns about what he called “poor usage, and resultant mis-trust, of the signalling systems”.
He thought the signs were regularly incorrect, leading to drivers ignoring them and using closed lanes as their own personal drag strips.
“It’s quite simply a boy who cried wolf situation,” explained Mr Gee. “Whereby the more this happens, the fewer drivers will take notice of the signs, and the sooner we will see a major traffic incident on this road.”
As a result of the confusion and new style of driving, Highways England released the below video in hopes of educating new smart motorway road users.
“Even I can see that,” proclaims the narrator when the red X lane closure instruction is introduced.
So just who is pulling the strings at Highways England’s control centre and setting those controversial signs?
Claire Rowley, control room team manager at Highways England Regional Control Centre in Godstone – where all the electronic signage for major roads in the south east are set – is partially responsible for setting the signs.
She oversees the smart section of the M3 and the southern half of the M25’s signage, as well as other road signals, queues and congestion issues.
Here’s how it works when a lane is closed; a call comes in from a number of channels, this could be police, Highways England units, recovery organisations or the public.
The job is received by an operative, located on CCTV and a lane closure is set to assist the speedy and safe recovery of the stationary vehicle.
Surrey Live asked Miss Rowley if people ignored the signs. She admitted they do, but warned it is against the law to do so.
When quizzed if the signs are ever set in error, the control room team manager denied it, but said “mistakes do happen”.
There are safety checks in place to avoid setting the wrong signs, officers on the ground will radio through to the control room and confirm their location, including carriageway, so the signals are correctly set.
Miss Rowley added: “We’ve had all kinds of reasons why people stop on the M25, we had a nappy change once and another time somebody stopped to have a cigarette.
“There are days where not a lot happens at all, but no two days are the same. I’ve been here since October, 2013 and I still enjoy it, it’s never mundane.”
The first thing you notice about the control centre is how many computer screens and electronic displays there are in the room.
Each operative is surrounded by no less than five monitors. But surprisingly, only one screen is required to set the signs on the whole of the Highways England road network.
There also massive displays on one wall of the control room, showing rotating live footage from across the south east’s roads.
Darrell Bryant, control room operations manager at Godstone, said: “Quite often it’s a flow issue when the traffic stacks up, it’s a concertina effect, if everyone is going the same speed they end up coming to a halt at some point and it all stacks up – that can be a reason for putting a 50mph sign up on the gantry, to maintain flow.”
Mr Bryant explained that “flow” is the true aim of the easily changed signs.
Achieving flow is often the reason for slower speed limits on the motorway.
Mr Bryant describes exactly how a command is sent to the electronic gantry signs, and what all those symbols on his ‘sign-setting’ monitor actually mean in the video below.
A ‘Q’ means traffic is queueing. A straight line indicates movement, and the small boxes hovering over the carriageway – marked in green for the M25 in the video – are the electronic gantry signs.
To edit what these signs show, an operative needs to click on the box and input a command.
In the video you can see a southbound section of the M25 has five ‘Qs’, meaning all five lanes have queueing traffic, therefore the speed limit on the gantry signs has been set to 40mph to keep road users moving at a safe speed.
There’s also an explanation for why the signs have been set to 40mph on the right of the gantry input boxes – in this case it says there is a stranded vehicle.
So the next time you’re sat in 40mph traffic on the M25, spare a thought for those in Godstone, watching over you like tech-savvy shepherds, making sure you get where you need to be, as safely and quickly as possible.