A smart motorway is a technology-enabled section of motorway that uses traffic management methods to control the flow of traffic, reduce congestion and improve journey times.
In some cases, the hard shoulder is used as a ‘live’ running lane to increase capacity, with variable speed limits put in place to maintain a smooth flow of traffic.
Not everyone is a fan of smart motorways, with some motorists arguing that the absence of a hard shoulder makes them more dangerous than conventional motorways.
Highways England, which manages the motorway network, said that since the introduction of the first smart motorway in 2006, journey reliability has improved by 22 percent and personal injury accidents have reduced by more than a half.
The RAC said: “In recent years, there has been a movement towards the permanent conversion of the hard shoulder into a running lane which has concerned us.
“The removal of the hard shoulder fundamentally increases the risk to drivers who might suffer a breakdown and are unable to reach a refuge area.
“To combat this, the RAC has worked with Highways England to increase the numbers of emergency refuge areas (ERAs), increase awareness and prominence of these by getting them repainted orange and make sure that the latest technology is used to detect when a vehicle is in trouble.”
Tips for driving on a smart motorway
Highways England has issued the following ‘quick tips’ for motorists driving on a smart motorway:
- Never drive in a lane closed by a red ‘X’: not only is it illegal, you also risk receiving a £100 fine. You’re also endangering the lives of other motorists and anyone who could be working in the closed lane.
- Keep to the speed limits shown on the signs: Highways England uses sensors and cameras to monitor traffic volumes, with limits set accordingly.
- 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, exit the motorway immediately.
- If you break down, put your hazard lights on.
- Most breakdowns are preventable: keep your car maintained, check your tyres and ensure you have enough fuel for your journey.
In an emergency or breakdown
If you’re unable to exit the motorway, follow these steps:
- Use an emergency area. These are marked with blue signs with an orange SOS telephone symbol.
- If you can leave your vehicle safely, contact Highways England using the emergency telephone. Alternatively, call 0300 123 5000 from your mobile.
- If you can’t get to an emergency area, move to the hard shoulder (where available) or as close to the nearside as possible.
- Consider exiting the vehicle via the nearside door and waiting behind the safety barrier.
- Switch on your hazard lights and side lights. DO NOT USE A WARNING TRIANGLE.
- Contact your breakdown provider.
A red ‘X’ means that you must stay out of a lane that is closed to traffic. The red ‘X’ might be displayed on an overhead gantry or on large signs next to the motorway.
It’s illegal to drive in a lane closed by a red ‘X’ sign. You could receive a fixed penalty of up to £100 and three points, and in some cases more severe penalties or a court appearance.
Variable speed limits
Highways England might impose a variable speed limit at busy times, but they can be automatically triggered by sensors that monitor traffic flow.
The speed limit is displayed inside a red circle and is legally enforceable. If no limit is displayed, the national speed limit applies.
You should always drive in the left-hand lane when the road ahead is clear. You must not drive on the hard shoulder except in an emergency or if instructed to by the police, Highways England or by signs.