Smart Motorways - Everything You Need To Know

Love them or hate them, smart motorways are here to stay. For many people there is a lot of confusion around them and no clear understanding of their purpose. Our article will tell you everything you need to know about smart motorways.

What is a Smart Motorway?

Smart motorways were developed by Highways England to monitor and manage the flow of traffic. This is done through a series of technologies that are controlled from regional centres. These technologies include:

  • CCTV cameras
  • Sensors to monitor traffic volume
  • Electronic display boards and signs
  • Emergency areas

The hard shoulder can also be used as an extra lane instead of extending the motorway further protecting wildlife.

How do Smart Motorways Work?

The electronic signs on a smart motorway will instruct you on how to use a smart motorway. Not paying attention to these signs could land you with a fine and points on your licence.

There are two types of sign you should look out for:

1.Red X on Smart Motorways

The red X on a smart motorway indicates that a lane is closed to all traffic. This could be because of an incident, men working or a breakdown.

It is illegal to drive in a lane marked with a red X and by doing so, you could be endangering the lives of others. If you’re caught driving in these lanes, you may face a fixed penalty of £100 and three points on your licence.

2.Smart Motorway Variable Speed Limit

To help with traffic flow and reduce the instances of traffic jams, regional control centres can change the speed limit on smart motorways to prevent traffic bunching.

If the speed limit has been changed this can be seen on the electronic signs above the lanes. A red circle with the MPH limit will display and is a legal requirement. For those who choose to ignore this you could potentially receive a fine and points on your licence for speeding.

If a variable speed limit is in place you will be notified of any changes via the display signs, including observing the national speed limit sign when the variations have ended.

If there are no variable speed limits in place, then the national speed limit for your vehicle type applies.

What Happens if you Break Down on a Smart Motorway?

If you break down on a smart motorway, if possible and safe to do so, try and reach your nearest emergency refuge area (ERA).

Turn on your hazard lights, exit the car on the passenger side and stand behind the crash barrier before attempting to use the SOS telephone. Once you have contacted Highways England, they will instruct you further.

Emergency refuge area on a smart motorway

[credit: Highways England]

If you’re having problems with your vehicle and there is no hard shoulder on the motorway, attempt to move into the left-hand lane with your hazard lights on. Exit at the next available service station, junction or if closer, navigate to the nearest emergency area by following the orange SOS signs.

If you are unable to leave the motorway, safely navigate your vehicle towards the verge on the left-hand side. If it is safe to exit the vehicle, all occupants should also exit on the left-hand side. You should then step over the crash barrier if there is one or stand clear of your vehicle and the road before calling 999.

If your vehicle breaks down suddenly in any motorway lane and you are not able to get out, keep your seatbelt fastened and turn on your hazard lights before calling 999.

CCTV used by the control centres can close lanes and change overhead signs on a motorway once they are aware of a breakdown or accident.  

In the event of a breakdown, you should make your own arrangements for the recovery of your vehicle. Read our article on ‘Important Vehicle Safety Tips to help try and avoid breakdowns.

Where are Smart Motorways?

Smart motorways currently cover large amounts of England’s motorways from Manchester down to parts of the M27 in Hampshire and are regularly expanded.

For a full list of smart motorways and those in development visit the Highways England Smart Motorways Network Map.

There are three types of smart motorways currently in use:

  1. Dynamic hard shoulder – This is where the hard shoulder is opened and used for running traffic during peak times. When a hard shoulder is not in use as an additional lane it will not display a signal in the overhead panel
  2. All lane running – On these types of motorways the hard shoulder has been permanently removed and is now used as a running lane.
  3. Controlled motorways – These types of smart motorways allow the hard shoulder to be used for emergencies only. They continue to use variable speed limits.

The images below illustrate what you would expect to see when you can and cannot use the hard shoulder for driving:

illustration of when you can use a hard shoulder on smart motorway
illustration of when you cannot use a hard shoulder on smart motorway

[credit: Highways England]

For more information on driving safely and how to use a smart motorway we recommend reading the official advice from Highways England.