Safely does it - increasing the speed limit through roadworks

There's a certain amount of risk that comes with roads; driving 1.5 tonnes of metal at 70mph is an activity we should never take lightly.

We and our supply chain work in and around this environment and all understand the care and diligence we need to take, day in and day out, to keep ourselves and our customers safe while we maintain, operate and upgrade our roads.

We have standards, processes and ways of working in place to keep us safe. These approaches are constantly reviewed and added to as technology changes, knowledge improves and as part of learning – sadly this can sometimes be as a result of something going wrong.

So changing a process, an accepted way of working, is a big deal. It can be a concern to those inside and outside an organisation. Is due care being taken? Is this about just saving money rather than the people?

Recently we announced the second phase of trials to consider speeds in roadworks. It was broadly welcomed and shows we're listening to road users; significantly, as we do this, safety will always be paramount.

The trials, to start this year, will help us understand what an appropriate speed is for different types of roadworks, and whether they can be designed with 60mph in mind without increasing the risk to people driving through the roadworks and those working alongside fast moving traffic. Even 40mph feels fast when there is only a temporary barrier between you and the traffic.

This year we'll look at different scenarios, or types of application for 60mph. This could include 60mph being applied on set days, such as a Sunday when less construction work is being undertaken; or using different speed limits in sections of the same roadworks, such as in a contra-flow arrangement where 50mph is utilised when the traffic is nearest to road workers, and 60mph on the side where they are further away from each other. We're hoping to test the use of 60mph in narrow lanes overnight and/or on Sundays as well as on one carriageway in a contraflow.

Last year's trials (which tested 55mph and 60mph) resulted in us agreeing a standard of 60mph through the roadworks for the technology testing phase (near the end of construction) of smart motorways – where we use variable speeds and additional lane capacity to manage the flow of traffic.

None of last year's trials (and the same will go for this year's) went anywhere without thorough safety risk assessments, known in the industry as GG104. These help us to determine if a trial or testing phase is the right way forward.

When you look back at motorway roadworks from decades ago you realise how far we've come already. Instead of relying on cones, most long term roadworks now use barriers to protect the workforce; we use a gated system within the work zone known as "airlocks" to keep our workforce separated from vehicles; cameras to maintain speed compliance are a regular feature.

For this year's trials, we've allocated £6m from our innovation designated fund towards enhanced infrastructure to maintain the safety of the workforce. For example, this is expected to cover enhanced temporary barriers and remote-activated signs to avoid the need for anyone to have to manually change the signs.

These trials were born from wanting our customers to have a better experience through our roadworks but that's not where the final say will lie. The final say will be whether these trials are safe for our workforce and road users. Safety is woven throughout our plans: always challenging how we can safely deliver roadworks.

We work closely with the industry, our supply chain, and within our business to make sure nothing is overlooked. We are also very clear that if we can't do it safely, we will stop the trial.

We want the work this year to be able to tell us this:

1. What is the safety impact on our workforce and our customers?
2. What are the benefits of 60mph for our customers?
3. What are the cost implications of increasing speed limits?
4. What is the impact on delivering schemes?

We've yet to finalise the locations we'll be using. Initially we probably won't promote them too much to the public – because we want to see what the natural response is from those driving through the roadworks. But we will publicly publish the results, as we did with last year's trials.

I'm really proud of the work we're doing and the support we've had from our supply chain, but pride alone won't make something a success. Doing these trials safely and as a team is what will help us improve our understanding and push the boundaries to make delivering roads better for the customers affected by the important work we do.

Meg Downing is the Customer Service Director for Major Projects at Highways England and is leading the trials for increasing the speed limit through roadworks.

Meg joined Highways England in 2006 and spent several years working in one of our area maintenance teams, before moving on to manage the programme office which developed the concept of all lane running smart motorways. She then led part of the transformation team taking the Highways Agency into Highways England, and then joining Major Projects in 2016.