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Understanding Smart Motorways

Published: 05/04/2017

Understanding Smart Motorways

With promises of reduced congestion and smoother traffic flows, motorways are getting smarter.

However, variable speed limits, lane closures and a disappearing hard shoulder can create confusion and concern amongst drivers. Whilst many users will have already experienced smart motorways we think these useful tips from Highways England will help drivers follow the signs and understand how they work.

Making motorways smarter

A smart motorway is a section of motorway that uses active traffic management (ATM) techniques to increase capacity by varying speed limits and using the hard shoulder as an extra lane at busy times. The technology is managed by a regional traffic control centre, which monitors traffic and changes signs and speed limits accordingly to keep traffic flowing smoothly and avoid drivers having to brake or be at a standstill. 

Know your smart motorways

There are three different types of smart motorway, and the hard shoulder plays a different role in each.

  • Controlled motorway: The hard shoulder is separated from live lanes by a solid white line and should only be used in an emergency
  • Hard shoulder running: The hard shoulder is opened to traffic at busy times, and the speed limit will be reduced. Only use if the overhead sign says that you can do so.
  • All lane running: there is no hard shoulder.

By understanding the signs in the picture we’ll all be doing our bit to keep traffic flowing.

  • Never drive in a lane marked with a red X. This lane is closed, most likely due to an accident or roadworks ahead, and must not be used. If you see a red X above the lane you’re in, move out of that lane promptly, or you may receive a fine.
  • Keep to the speed limit shown on the overhead gantries. These limits can be changed to help smooth the flow of traffic at busy times and prevent “stop-start” traffic. 
  • Don’t risk it. A speed limit displayed inside a red circle is legally enforceable and if no special speed limit is displayed then the national speed limit applies. Speed cameras are in operation on smart motorways and speeding drivers will receive a fine.

What to do if you break down on a smart motorway

  • Prevention is better than cure. Keep your car well maintained. Before any motorway journey check your tyres and make sure you have enough fuel for the journey. Have your Incident Line details handy and ensure your phone is charged.
  • Always try to exit the smart motorway immediately if your vehicle is damaged or experiences difficulties e.g. warning light.

If you are unlucky enough to break down on a smart motorway where the hard shoulder has been converted into a traffic lane, follow these steps:

  • Use an emergency refuge area (ERA), motorway service area or leave at the next junction. If you stop in an ERA, you must use the SOS phone to contact the Regional Control Centre when you stop, and before you leave. ERA's are only short lay-bys, not long enough to allow you to build up sufficient speed before re-joining the motorway, so before leaving you must contact the Regional Control Centre. They’ll either dispatch a Highways England Traffic Officer and/or set signs and signals (red X) to assist your safe exit.
  • If you're driving and a red X appears above lane 1 it could simply be to let a slow moving vehicle re-join the motorway from an ERA.

If you cannot get to an emergency refuge area, move into the nearest place of relative safety.

  • Try to get the vehicle off the carriageway, on to the left hand lane and on to the nearside verge or boundary if there is no safety barrier and it is safe to do so. Put your hazard lights on.
  • If you’re in the left-hand lane, and it is safe to do so, get out of the vehicle on the left-hand (passenger) side, wait behind the barrier and call us. If it isn’t safe to leave the vehicle, stay in the car with your seatbelt on and dial 999.

If you have to stop in a traffic lane

  • Stay in your vehicle with your seatbelt on, turn on your hazard lights and dial 999.
    Once the Highways England regional traffic control centre is aware of your situation, via the police or roadside technology such as CCTV, they can use the smart motorway technology to set overhead signs and close the lane you are in, to help keep traffic away from you. They may send a traffic officer or the police to help you.

And lastly...a word of warning 

In November last year a BBC report said that:

Police figures say that more than 1,000 motorists a week are being caught speeding on the UK's smart motorways.

Last year, 52,516 fixed penalties were issued on 11 smart sections, including on stretches of the M1, M25 and M6. This compared to 2,023 on the same stretches in 2010-11, before they were upgraded to smart motorways.

There are more than 236 miles of smart motorways in England. A further 200 miles of smart motorways are currently either planned or under construction.

Revenue increased

The findings meant the revenue going to central government every year increased to more than £1.1m, from £150,600 five years ago. 

There is just one stretch of smart motorway in Scotland - on the M9 - which saw the annual number of tickets issued increase from nine to 41 over the four years.

Almost 250 people were caught speeding in the first three days after enforcement was introduced on the M4, near Newport. The system had been introduced in 2011 but was inactive for five years.

On one section of the M1 in Nottinghamshire, police issued 8,489 tickets, amounting to £425,000 of fines, in 2015.




M40 - A1




A1 - Potters Bar




M25 - Luton S & airport




Luton S airport - Bedford, M Keynes




Nottingham - Mansfield




M42 / Coventry - Birmingham E




Birmingham E - M5




M5 - M54




M40 - M6 (N)




M6 (N) - M6 Toll




Bristol - M5



The AA told The One Show "questions need to be answered about the money being recouped".

The AA also raised safety concerns about drivers having to use emergency refuge areas when the hard shoulder is removed to operate as an extra lane. AA president Edmund King said more emergency refuges were needed and they should be twice as long, adding: "Only a couple of weeks ago one of our members broke down on a smart motorway. There was a red 'X' up but they still got hit from behind."

Cut congestion

With motorway traffic forecast to increase by up to 60% from 2010 rates by 2040, the government is pressing ahead with its £6bn investment in smart motorways.

A spokesman for the Department for Transport said: "Smart motorways smooth traffic flow and cut congestion for millions of motorists, with evidence from trials showing they are just as safe as regular motorways. "Enforcement is a matter for the police and it is clear that speeding costs lives. However, we have been clear for a number of years that speed cameras should not be used to generate revenue."

Shaun Pidcock, from Highways England - said they were "the safest motorways on the network" and "We have 100% CCTV coverage and we have people watching over them, making sure they're safe, and we can get people in the traffic office to them far safer and quicker than we can do on normal motorways."


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