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Life-saving tech ‘was not working on stretch of road where grandmother, 68, was killed in smash’

Life-saving technology was not working on a stretch of smart motorway where a driver died in a crash after breaking down, insiders have claimed.

Road bosses were last night facing questions about whether the tragedy was avoidable after sources told the Daily Mail the radar had not been working for days.

National Highways’ stopped vehicle detection (SVD) system is supposed to alert traffic officers to vehicles marooned in live traffic – which often happens on ‘all lane running’ smart motorways as their hard shoulders are permanently removed.

Pulvinder Dhillon, 68, from London, was killed on the M4 on Monday when her car broke down and was struck by a white van

But Pulvinder Dhillon, 68, from London, was killed on the M4 on Monday when her car broke down and was struck by a white van.

Sources told the Mail it was believed Mrs Dhillon’s car had been stranded for several minutes without being noticed by the system.

The tragedy happened close to junction 12 near Reading, after her Nissan came to a halt in the fourth lane during the morning rush hour. Two other passengers suffered serious injuries.

One National Highways insider said: ‘Allegedly the SVD hadn’t been working for five days prior to the accident.

Firefighters were called to extinguish the flames on the burning vehicles with the road remaining closed for more than five hours

Firefighters were called to extinguish the flames on the burning vehicles with the road remaining closed for more than five hours

‘Police apparently picked up that the vehicle was stranded and when [National Highways] turned the cameras around to find the vehicle, they saw it get hit.’

A second source who works in the South Mimms control room in Hertfordshire, which monitors the M4 stretch which reopened last month, said: ‘[Mrs Dhillon] was sitting there for around five to ten minutes and cars were coming up to it at speed and almost hitting it and all of a sudden the van hits it.

‘Everyone is relying on SVD to protect them. I’m not anti-smart motorways, but I’m anti them being run badly.’

The control room source said the SVD system had not issued a single alert for the whole of the M4 since March 2. When an alert goes off, the system is supposed to set warnings signs and a recommended speed limit on nearby message boards.

As National Highways staff were seemingly not alerted to the breakdown on Monday, no lane closures or signals were put in place – either manually or automatically – to protect Mrs Dhillon.

Officials are said to have been briefed about the revelations following the crash.

Mrs Dhillon stalled in the fourth lane of the busy motorway near Reading, Berkshire, before being struck by a white van on Monday morning

Mrs Dhillon stalled in the fourth lane of the busy motorway near Reading, Berkshire, before being struck by a white van on Monday morning

The roads agency did not deny the claims last night, saying instead that it would ‘not be appropriate to comment’ due to the incident being under investigation.

Mrs Dhillon’s heartbroken family released a statement through Thames Valley Police on Thursday, saying: ‘She was a beautiful, kind mother, mother-in-law, sister, grandma and friend who was loved and respected by all she knew.

‘It’s a tragic accident and we would want the respect of the public to let the family come to terms with what has happened and grieve in peace.’

The Mail first revealed a raft of lethal problems with smart motorways in an investigation into the ‘death trap’ roads six months ago.

An undercover reporter working at a National Highways control center witnessed the radar-based system fail to go off when there was a stranded car on a smart motorway section of the M25 for 30 minutes.

The alert was also triggered constantly with false alarms.

Internal reports revealed staff flagged system failures to highways bosses several times, complaining the system often misses breakdowns when they occur – with potentially catastrophic results.

SVD has previously been lauded by road bosses and ministers as ‘ground-breaking’ and the key to keeping motorists safe.

But a report by the Commons transport committee last October raised concerns about ‘whether stopped vehicle detection technology is effective and reliable’.

Tory MP Greg Smith, who sits on the committee, said of the latest tragedy: ‘It is wholly unacceptable for any smart motorway, let alone a new one, to have technology that is not working. The technology deployed on these roads is essential to save lives in the event of a breakdown or stopped vehicles. If the technology was not working, the road simply should not be open.’

A Department for Transport spokesman said the allegations were ‘deeply concerning’ and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has demanded answers from the road agency’s bosses.

Martin Fellows, National Highways’ regional director, said: ‘This was a tragic incident and our thoughts are with everyone affected at this difficult time.’

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