Motorway roadworks speed limit raised to 60mph

The speed limit on sections of motorway undergoing roadworks has been increased to cut journey times and improve safety...

Smart motorways – what are they and how should I use them?

Highways England has raised the maximum limit for cars travelling through roadworks on sections of motorway from 50mph to 60mph “where it is safe for road users and road workers and where shown on road signs”. 

The move follows research and trials by the organisation that showed increasing the speed limit not only alleviated frustration for drivers but also improved safety, because more motorists stuck to the higher speed limit. 

Six to eight-week trials of the higher speed limit took place on eight roadwork zones on the M1, M4 and M6. Findings from the trials showed that drivers saved an average of 3780 hours on journey times each day. Road workers operating at the sites were happy with safety in the zones and chose to retain the higher limit after the trials were completed. 

Cars on the motorway

The speed limit will not be raised on all sections of roadworks, though. There are different rules for the three different types of roadworks. The 60mph limit is being applied on all sections classed as 'permanent' by Highways England. For sections classed as contraflows, it is only being introduced on stretches of road where main construction activity isn't taking place, and in 'dynamic' sections of roadworks the limit is only applicable on non-working days. 

The news comes soon after the Government’s recent pledge to invest £1.7 billion into repairing local roads and speeding up work on major road networks. 

The 60mph limit in roadworks is likely to have the biggest impact in areas where smart motorways are being introduced. New safety measures, including the abolition of dynamic hard shoulder sections and an increase in the number of Highways England traffic officer patrols, have been introduced on smart motorways in response to concerns over their safety.

Jim O’Sullivan, chief executive of Highways England, said: “All of our research shows that road users benefit from 60mph limits in roadworks. They have shorter journey times and feel safe.

“Road users understand that roadworks are necessary, but they're frustrated by them. So testing 60mph has been about challenging the norm while ensuring the safety of our people working out there and those using our roads.”

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What is a smart motorway and what if your car breaks down on one?

Smart motorways are a response to increasing congestion on UK motorways; they use cameras and remotely-controlled speed limit signs to control the flow of traffic, and many allow cars to be driven on the hard shoulder either all or some of the time.

The thinking behind them is to add an extra 33% of capacity to our motorway network at a fraction of the cost – in money and to the environment – of physically adding another lane to every stretch of motorway. They also improve traffic flow, helping to compensate for the £2 billion a year that the UK’s economy loses due to congestion caused by long-term underinvestment in roads and increased traffic volume.

At the time of writing, there are 200 miles of smart motorway and another 300 miles are being converted.

Smart motorways – what are they and how should I use them?

What are the concerns about smart motorways?

The first smart motorways had ERAs every 600 metres, giving drivers plenty of safe havens to use in the event of a break down. In 2013, the Department for Transport decided all new schemes would be all lane running and that the distance between ERAs could be up to 2.5km (1.5 miles). The combination of these two factors led the emergency services and breakdown rescue providers to voice serious concerns about the safety of their staff and other road users.

Eighty-four per cent of drivers surveyed by the RAC felt that the hard shoulder was important in breakdown and accident situations and 82% said they would feel “very concerned” if they broke down in lane one – formerly the hard shoulder – of an all-lane running section of motorway.

Smart motorways have also had an impact on the ability of the emergency services to get to accident scenes because they no longer have a hard shoulder to drive along. They’ve developed a new strategy of closing the other side of the motorway and then driving to the accident.

What is a smart motorway?

There are currently three types of smart motorway:

1. Controlled motorway

This type of motorway has variable speed limits monitored via a regional traffic centre; vehicles can only use the hard shoulder in an emergency, such as a breakdown. An example of this is the western section of the M25.

2. Hard shoulder running

On this type of motorway, the traffic control centre allows vehicles to use the hard shoulder at peak times to ease congestion. When the hard shoulder is in use, a speed-limit sign is displayed on the gantries above it; when it’s not in use, they will show a red X.

It’s an offence to drive along a hard shoulder when the red X is showing; if you do, you may receive a fine. Junctions 7-9 on the M42 are operated in this way. There are emergency refuge areas (ERAs) at set intervals for vehicles to use if they break down.

3. All lanes running

Traffic uses the hard shoulder as a normal lane all the time on these stretches of motorway. They also have ERAs at regular intervals.

Smart motorways – what are they and how should I use them?

What rules must I abide by on a smart motorway?

There are two things to keep in mind. First, the ERAs on a smart motorway are for emergency use only, so you should not stop in them for any other reason, and once you’ve stopped there you shouldn’t pull back onto the motorway until the authorities tell you it’s safe to do so.

The other thing to remember is that it is an offence to drive in a lane with a red X on the gantry above it. While doing this is only likely to result in a warning letter from the police at present, there are plans to introduce fixed penalty fines in the future, so it’s best to get into the habit of leaving a closed lane as soon as you can.

Next: what to do if your car breaks down on a smart motorway >

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