What is a Smart Motorway?

Sam Bisby

By: Sam Bisby

It’s very likely that on your travels you’ve come across a ‘Smart Motorway’. Many popular road systems have been converted into a Smart Motorway at some point or another, including the M1, M62 and M25.

However, despite Smart Motorways being part of our road network for some time now, many drivers are still getting caught out by them.

The Telegraph reported in November 2016 that more than 1,000 drivers per week are being issued speeding tickets after being caught on Smart Motorways. A total of 52,516 fixed penalty notices were handed out between 2014-15. Compare this to to just 2,023 fines being issued on the same roads pre-Smart conversion during 2010-11.

If you’re a motorist who feels they need a bit of clarification on what is a Smart Motorway, the following guide is a comprehensive look at exactly how they work and how they look to help drivers on some of our busiest road networks.

What is a Smart Motorway and why do we have them?

In short, Highways England (formerly Highways Agency) initiated these Smart Motorways in a bid to ease congestion. It is estimated that congestion on motorways and major road networks in England costs around £2 billion every year, and 25 per cent of this stems from incidents.

Smart Motorways are a “technology-driven approach” to the use of our motorways to increase capacity and relieve congestion, making journeys more reliable as a whole. A key action to achieve this is opening up the hard shoulder to allow a more efficient flow of traffic by providing extra capacity; in total, the Smart Motorway programme looks to add another 4,000 miles of extra capacity.

Another key feature is a variable speed limit that comes into effect when the traffic flow needs to be regulated. In doing this, stop-start driving is reduced and driving is smoother. The technology installed on Smart Motorways can also identify the need to close lanes for safety reasons as a result of an incident or to allow emergency vehicles to pass through.

Types of Smart Motorway

Believe it or not, there are actually three types of Smart Motorway: controlled motorways, dynamic hard shoulder running schemes and all lane running schemes.

Controlled motorways

This type of Smart Motorway have three or more lanes with variable speed limits, but always have the hard shoulder clear for genuine emergencies only.

Dynamic hard shoulder

Possibly the most commonplace Smart Motorway type, dynamic hard shoulder motorways run a conventional system with the hard shoulder closed for emergencies only, unless the traffic conditions call for the hard shoulder to open to normal traffic to ease congestion.

The gantries overhead will tell motorists whether this dynamic hard shoulder is open or not to normal traffic. If there is an incident in the hard shoulder (referred to as lane one when open to normal traffic), the gantry above it will display a red ‘X’ symbol, meaning it is forbidden to drive in that lane. To drive in this lane while the red X is displayed is illegal.

These overhead displays will also show if there is a mandatory speed limit enforced. A variable speed limit comes into place if there is an incident and a designated speed will be displayed to help the flow of traffic. Smart Motorway speed cameras are in place to enforce this speed limit.

All lane running schemes

These kind of Smart Motorways have - you guessed it - all lanes open, including the hard shoulder, in order to keep traffic flowing efficiently.

Lane one only closes to regular traffic and becomes the hard shoulder once more if there is an incident, and this is indicated via the overhead gantries or signs on the verge of the road.

Again, like dynamic hard shoulder layouts, the gantry signs will be utilised to let drivers know there is an enforced speed limit, with speed cameras in place to catch anyone driving over the designated speed.

The gantry can also be used to shut lanes down if necessary and if there is an incident in lane one; the red X symbol will appear to let drivers know a lane is closed.

Emergency refuge areas are a feature on this Smart Motorway configuration and are never spaced more than 1.5 miles apart, allowing motorists to stay safe following a breakdown or an accident.

Speed limits and Smart Motorway speed cameras

If there’s anything to be said about Smart Motorways, it’s that they are good at catching speeding motorists. A four-junction stretch of the M1 near Luton Airport dished out nearly 10,500 of those 52,516 fines between 2014-15. Meanwhile, between J19-20 on the M4 (Bristol/M5) there were just over 9,000 people caught speeding in that same time.

This has led to some criticism to the nature of these Smart Motorways, with some asking if they are just a scheme to get more money out of the motorist. President of the AA motoring organisation, Edmund King, even commented: “Questions need to be answered about the money being recouped.”

Meanwhile, Highways England said on the money brought in by speed cameras: “The government has been clear speed cameras should not be used to generate revenue and the vast majority of motorists are sticking to the speed limits.”

During a journey on a Smart Motorway the variable speed limit is subject to change at any time in order to smooth the flow of traffic, with the overhead gantries notifying motorists of this temporary yet mandatory new limit. When no limit is indicated, the national speed limit of 70mph in is place.

Attached to many of these gantries are Smart Motorway speed cameras, usually one for each lane, that will come into action when these variable speed limits are active.

Breaking down on a Smart Motorway

There are no guarantees that even a smoother motorway journey will give your car 100 per cent reliability, and in the unfortunate event of your vehicle breaking down on a Smart Motorway, there are a few things you can do to ease the situation:

- First and foremost, you should try if possible to get to an emergency refuge area (ERA). You’ll be able to identify these by their blue signs that feature an orange SOS telephone symbol. Regardless of which Smart Motorway you’re travelling on, you should never be further away than 1.5 miles from an ERA. When stopped safely, use the phone provided to let Highways England know of your situation.

- If you are unable to reach an ERA then you should try to move onto the verge of the road if there is no safety barrier and is safe to do so.

- If there is no verge and you stop in the nearside lane, leave your vehicle via the left hand door - never exit next to the active lanes of traffic - and stand behind the safety barrier.

- In the event of being stranded between active lanes of traffic, immediately put your hazards on and stay in your vehicle with your seatbelt on. Also, if you have a personal mobile phone, phone 999 to alert the emergency services of your situation.

- In all cases, put on your vehicle’s hazard warning lights.

Quick tips for Smart Motorways

- Never drive in a lane closed with a red X symbol

- Keep to the speed limit indicated by the gantries. If no speed is designated, stick to the national speed limit (70mph)

- A solid white line indicates the hard shoulder and shouldn’t be driven in unless directed to

- A broken white line indicates a normal running lane

- In the event of vehicle difficulties (warning lights etc.), exit the motorway as soon as possible

- For emergencies where there is no hard shoulder, use the Emergency Refuge Areas if possible

- Put your hazard lights on in the event of a breakdown

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