Smart motorways - what are they and how do you use them?

Smart motorways - what are they and how do you use them?
Smart motorways are a contentious topic, but they're here to stay, so it's vital drivers and riders get to grips with how to use them.

Motorists have voiced numerous concerns about these new types of motorway, including: what are they? How do I use them? Are they more dangerous? And, what fines can I get while driving on them?

Here we have endeavoured to answer all of your concerns to help motorists have a smoother and safer driving experience. Feel free to join the debate and comment below on your experiences of using smart motorways. 

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What is a smart motorway?

A smart motorway is a section of a motorway that uses traffic management methods to increase capacity and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas.

These methods include using the hard shoulder as a running lane and using variable speed limits to control the flow of traffic.

Highways England (previously the Highways Agency) developed smart motorways to manage traffic in a way that minimises environmental impact, cost and time to construct by avoiding the need to build additional lanes.

There are three types of scheme which are classed as smart motorways.

MORE ADVICE: The real causes of motorway traffic and how to stop it

What different types of smart motorway are there?

Smart motorways

The three different types of smart motorway currently include: controlled motorways, dynamic hard shoulder running schemes and all lane running schemes.

It is the RAC's understanding that Highways England are looking to eventually phase out dynamic hard shoulder running schemes in favour of all lane running schemes.

  • All lane running schemes

    As the name suggests all lane running schemes permanently remove the hard shoulder and convert it into a running lane.

    On these types of motorway, lane one (formerly the hard shoulder) is only closed to traffic in the event of an incident.

    In this case a lane closure will be signalled by a red X on the gantry above, meaning you must exit the lane as soon as possible.

    Ignoring the ‘red X’ sign is extremely dangerous to do so.

    All running lane motorways also have overhead gantry signs that display the mandatory speed limit which varies depending on the traffic conditions - if no speed limit is displayed the national speed limit is in place. Speed cameras are used to enforce these.

    Drivers have voiced concerns about sudden variable speed limit changes causing them to slam on their brakes to reduce their speed in time.

    Highways England has clarified there is a slight lag between when the speed limit is changed and when the cameras will begin to enforce that speed limit, to accommodate drivers reducing their speed at a sensible rate.

    A specific time period is not given for every camera, however, and it can be as quick as ten seconds, so it is crucial drivers remain alert and respond to variable speed limits swiftly and safely.

    CCTV is used extensively to monitor traffic for any incidents. Should drivers break down or be involved in an accident there are emergency refuge areas (ERAs) at the side of the carriageway for them to use.

    These are typically further apart than current sections of motorway operating the dynamic hard shoulder running configuration, with an average spacing of 1.5 miles apart, however, the RAC is urging Highways England to retrofit more ERAs, closer together on all lane running sections.

  • Controlled motorway

    Controlled motorways have three or more lanes with variable speed limits, but retains a hard shoulder. The hard shoulder should only be used in a genuine emergency.

    These variable speed limits are displayed on overhead gantry signs - if no speed limit is displayed the national speed limit is in place. Speed cameras are used to enforce these.

    Drivers have voiced concerns about sudden variable speed limit changes causing them to slam on their brakes to reduce their speed in time.

    Highways England has clarified there is a slight lag between when the speed limit is changed and when the cameras will begin to enforce that speed limit, to accommodate drivers reducing their speed at a sensible rate.

    A specific time period is not given for every camera, however, and it can be as quick as ten seconds so it is crucial drivers remain alert and respond to variable speed limits swiftly and safely.

  • Dynamic hard shoulder running schemes

    Dynamic hard shoulder running involves opening the hard shoulder as a running lane to traffic at busy periods to ease congestion.

    On these stretches a solid white line differentiates the hard shoulder from the normal carriageway. Overhead signs on gantries indicate whether or not the hard shoulder is open to traffic.

    The hard shoulder must not be used if the signs over it are blank or display a red X, except in the case of an emergency.

    A red X on the gantry above means you must exit the lane as soon as possible.

    Ignoring the ‘red X’ sign is extremely dangerous to do so.

    Overhead gantries on these types of motorway also display the mandatory speed limit which varies depending on the traffic conditions. Speed cameras are used to enforce these - no speed limit displayed indicates the national speed limit is in place.

    Drivers have voiced concerns about sudden variable speed limit changes causing them to slam on their brakes to reduce their speed in time.

    Highways England has clarified there is a slight lag between when the speed limit is changed and when the cameras will begin to enforce that speed limit, to accommodate drivers reducing their speed at a sensible rate.

    A specific time period is not given for every camera, however, and it can be as quick as ten seconds so it is crucial drivers remain alert and respond to variable speed limits swiftly and safely.

    CCTV is used extensively to monitor traffic for any incidents. Should drivers break down or be involved in an accident there are emergency refuge areas at the side of the carriageway for them to use.

Are smart motorways dangerous?

Many people are of the opinion that smart motorways are more dangerous than conventional motorways, because of the lack of a hard shoulder.

But Highways England has published statistics from data gathered since the first smart motorway opened in 2006 to say:

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

The RAC says: "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.

Smart motorway dangers

"The safety of road users must always be the number one priority. We hope that Highways England prioritises the retrofitting more ERAs to the original all lane running schemes.

"It is also vital that drivers are aware that these types of motorways operate variable speed limits, and these can be helpful for managing the smoother flow of traffic."

What fines can I get driving on a smart motorway?

Of course, all of the normal road rules and laws apply on smart motorways but there are a few points in particular that are worth clarifying.

Speeding

The same laws and sentencing applies for speeding on a smart motorway, but with more cameras on smart motorways and variable speed limits, motorists typically have a much higher chance of getting caught and fined for speeding.

This is further fuelled by the fact that many drivers do not realise cameras on smart motorways that enforce variable speed limits can still catch you travelling over the national speed limit even when a variable limit isn't in place.

Highways England has stated that: "If no special speed limit is displayed then the national speed limit applies.

"Speed cameras are in operation on smart motorways. If you don’t keep to the speed limit, you may receive a fine."

Given the new speeding sentencing structures that could lead to as much as a £2,500 fine for offenders, motorists who flout the rules leave themselves wide open to a more severe punishment. 

MORE ADVICE: Speed cameras - tips and facts so you don't get caught out

Red X fines

Ignoring the ‘red X’ sign is extremely dangerous.

As it stands, there is manual enforcement of red x signs, however, camera enforcement is expected to be brought in during the summer, although this has already been delayed previously.

When new measures come in repeat offenders will likely receive points and a fine, or an option to do a motorway awareness course. 

Tips for driving on smart motorways

The Gov website offers some quick tips for using a smart motorway:

  • Never drive in a lane closed by a red “X”
  • Keep to the speed limit shown on the gantries
  • A solid white line indicates the hard shoulder - don’t drive in it unless directed.
  • A broken white line indicates a normal running lane
  • If your vehicle experiences difficulties, eg warning light, exit the smart motorway immediately if possible
  • Use the refuge areas for emergencies if there’s no hard shoulder
  • Put your hazard lights on if you break down

I've broken down on a smart motorway - what do I do?

If you are unlucky enough to break down or be involved in an accident while on a smart motorway, you should follow these steps:

  • Use an emergency refuge area (ERA) if you are able to reach one safely. These are marked with blue signs featuring an orange SOS telephone symbol on them. Different types of smart motorways have different ERA spacing, but the furthest you will be away from one is around 1.5 miles. 
  • If you cannot get to an emergency refuge area, you should try to move on to the verge if there is no safety barrier and it is safe to do so.
  • In all cases, switch on your hazard warning lights.
  • If you stop in the nearside lane, leave your vehicle via the nearside (left hand) door if it is safe to do so and wait behind the safety barrier, if there is one. If you are unable to move over to the nearside lane, remain in the vehicle with your seat belt on.
  • If you can leave your vehicle safely, contact Highways England via the roadside emergency telephone provided in all emergency refuge areas. If it is not possible to get out of your vehicle safely, then you should stay in your vehicle with your seat belt on and dial '999' if you have access to a working mobile phone.

For advice on what to do if you break down elsewhere you might also want to refer to our general motorway breakdown advice.

READ NEXT: Motorway cameras - which ones can catch you out?

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