Smart Motorways - What Are They?

Congestion on motorways and major roads in England is a costly problem. It is estimated that £2 Billion every year is spent on managing the aftermath of this congestion with 25% of the money going to repair damage from traffic accidents.

Smart motorways are a business scheme from Highways England to keep congestion to a minimum and improve your journeys overall. However, you may be wondering how exactly smart motorways are meant to help: what are they, how do I use them, what if I break down, do they actually help?

Don’t worry. We’re here to help. Check out below and we’ll start to help you understand smart motorways.

What Is A Smart Motorway?

A Smart Motorway is a section of motorway that uses cameras to analyse and manage the traffic. A smart motorway utilises various traffic management methods to keep the traffic flowing. Two of these methods are the use of variable speed limits and opening up the hard shoulder as a new lane of traffic.

There are three different types of smart motorways:

  • All Lane Running Scheme
  • Dynamic Hard Shoulder Scheme
  • Controlled Motorway Scheme

The ‘All Lane Running’ Scheme permanently removes the hard shoulder and converts it into a running lane. The first lane (previously the hard shoulder) will then only be closed to traffic when an incident has occurred. The closure of a lane is indicated by a red ‘X’ on an overhead sign and means you must exit the lane as soon as you can; to continue would be dangerous and illegal.

The ‘Dynamic Hard Shoulder’ Scheme involves opening the hard shoulder to vehicles at times of high congestion. Overhead signs will show whether or not the lane is allowed to be used but a hard shoulder should not be used if the sign over it has a red ‘X’ or is blank – except for emergency cases.

On these schemes, the overhead signs are used to show the variable speed limit which adjusts depending on traffic situations. If no speed limit is indicated, then the motorway employs the national speed limit.

The ‘Controlled Motorway’ Scheme is where a motorway with three or more lanes using a variable speed limit as above but retains normal use of its hard shoulder. The hard shoulder is used as normal.

The first smart motorway scheme opened to traffic on the M42 in 2006. From this scheme, we can already note some of the benefits that a smart motorway scheme can generate:

  • Journey reliability has improved by 22%
  • Personal injury accidents have reduced by more than half
  • When accidents did occur, severity was much lower overall with zero fatalities and fewer seriously injured.

What If I Breakdown?

Smart motorways that lack hard shoulders employ emergency refuge areas (or SOS areas). These are located along the motorways and are deigned to offer a place of safety for stranded vehicles.

Majority are painted orange for maximum visibility and on ‘all lane running’ smart motorways, they can appear up to once every 1.5 miles. Highways England has said that future smart motorways will include more ERAs.

Highways England have released a guide about knowing what to do in an emergency or a breakdown on a smart motorway:

If your vehicle has a problem on a motorway with no hard shoulder:

  • Move into the left hand lane and put your hazard lights on
  • Exit at the next junction or services OR
  • Follow the orange SOS signs to an emergency area and call for help using the free telephone. This will tell us your location.

If you can’t get off the motorway or to an emergency area:

  • Move your vehicle as close as possible to the left-hand verge, boundary or slip road
  • If you feel you can get out safely with any occupants, consider exiting your vehicle via the left-hand door, and wait behind the safety barrier if there is one and it is safe to do so. Keep clear of your vehicle and moving traffic at all times
  • Call 999 immediately

If your car stops unexpectedly in any lane and it is not safe to get out

  • Keep your seatbelts and hazard lights on and call 999 immediately
  • We’ll close the lane and send help.

Tips For Driving On Smart Motorways

  • Never drive in a lane closed by a Red X.
  • Keep to the speed limits shown on the signs.
  • A hard shoulder is always identified by a solid white unbroken line - if there’s no speed limit displayed above it or a Red X is displayed, do not use it except in emergency.
  • A broken white line indicates a normal running lane.
  • If the hard shoulder is being used as an extra lane, use the designated emergency areas for emergencies.
  • If your vehicle experiences difficulties, eg warning light, exit the motorway immediately, if you can.
  • If you break down, put your hazard lights on.
  • Most breakdowns are preventable - keep your car well maintained, check your tyres and make sure you have enough fuel for your journey.

We hope that this guide helps you to better understand Smart Motorways.

Got a question? Feel free to get in touch to see how we can help.