Smart motorways: what are they and how should you use them?

A key target to make smart motorways safer has been missed. We look at what smart motorways are and why they’re so unpopular...

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

Four key safety improvements were due to be implemented on smart motorways by the end of September 2022 to allay concerns raised about these roads following a number of deaths and serious injuries on them.

However, National Highways, the organisation responsible for implementing the changes, has admitted that it has not met one of these targets: the requirement for emergency services to reach stranded vehicles within 10 minutes. This is a vital measure that has the capacity to prevent collisions and deaths on smart motorways. It has, however, come close to meeting it: according to data for August 2022 the average response time was 10 minutes and 29 seconds.    

The improvements were among a number of measures announced in May 2022 by the National Highways agency in response to an action plan published by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps in March.

The other three improvements to be completed by the end of September have been met. They are the retrofitting of stopped vehicle detection technology to all existing smart motorways that do not have a hard shoulder, the installation of an additional 330 signs on motorways showing the distance to the next emergency stopping area, and an upgrade to 95 enforcement cameras to enable them to detect vehicles that are driven illegally in closed lanes and enable the authorities to fine the drivers.

Smart motorway

Nick Harris, chief executive of National Highways, commented: “This is not the end of our work and we will continue to deliver further improvements to help ensure people feel safe and confident when using our roads.”

There are currently 400 miles of smart motorways in operation in England, and there are widespread fears about how safe they are for motorists and other road users. 

The rollout of a further 300 miles of smart motorways was halted at the start of 2022 by Shapps, after a Transport Committee report raised serious safety concerns about the network. 

The Department for Transport (DfT) will not start to convert any more motorways to smart roads until at least 2025, when five years’ worth of safety data for all schemes introduced before 2020 will be available. 

New Prime Minister Liz Truss has said she will stop smart motorways, calling them “an experiment that hasn’t worked”. 

In August 2022, Truss said the Government would conduct a review of smart motorways, and this could result in them being banned. She also pledged to examine whether motorway speed limits should be scrapped.

REDFLEX Speed Cameras (Redflex)

What are the concerns about smart motorways?

Smart motorways were introduced in 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 was to add an extra 33% of capacity to the 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 should 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.

Smart motorways have either no physical hard shoulder or a hard shoulder that can be used as a live lane during peak traffic hours, in order to improve traffic flow. Although they have emergency refuge areas (ERAs) that ailing cars can pull into, these are often a long way apart and can be blocked by lorries and other vehicles using them to take a break. The consequence is that vehicles that break down can be stranded in live traffic lanes.

The first smart motorways had ERAs every 600 metres, giving drivers plenty of safe havens to use in the event of a breakdown. In 2013, the DfT decided all new schemes would be all-lane running and that the distance between ERAs could be up to 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.

Motorway breakdown

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.

Smart motorways – what to do if you break down

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

3. All-lane 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.

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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