The U.K.’s initiative to make a number of the country’s main motorways, known as ‘smart motorways’, was cut short in 2022. It was announced that there was not enough safety data gathered. Despite this concern, motorways that have already been upgraded will still be considered and used as ‘smart motorways’. This includes the M1, M4, and M6.
You may have heard a few basic things about smart motorways, including taking advantage of all lanes and using variable speed limits. However, the everyday driver’s knowledge of these intelligent traffic systems (as they are known in Scotland) tends to be limited.
So, we’ve created this guide detailing the rules and what you should look out for when driving on one.
What is a smart motorway?
A smart motorway is defined by several techniques used to control the flow of traffic in particularly busy areas of the country. These techniques are implemented to improve traffic flow and prevent congestion during peak times.
Some of the main techniques used on a smart motorway include ‘all lane running’, ‘dynamic hard shoulder lanes’ and ‘variable speed limits’ schemes. A smart motorway is monitored and altered depending on the traffic flow to increase the motorway’s capacity and reduce the risk of congestion forming.
Smart motorways were devised by the government agency National Highways to improve motorway usage without widening or extending the number of lanes available. Smart motorways are said to reduce journey times, which helps save money for commuters and reduces the carbon footprint caused by congestion on the motorway.
Where are the smart motorways?
Given that the planned nationwide rollout has been paused, for the time being, smart motorways can only currently be found in a few locations in England.
As of 2022, there are 375 miles worth of smart motorways in total, most of which can be found around London, the North West, and the West Midlands. This includes motorways around Bristol, Manchester, and Birmingham.
Specifically, you’ll find stretches of smart motorway on the M1, M3, M4, M5, M6, M20, M23, M25, M27, M40, M42, M56, M60 and M62. You’ll find the most amount of designated smart areas on the M25, closely followed by the M1.
How does a smart motorway work?
A regional traffic control centre, such as Highways England, monitors the build-up of cars on a particular motorway network. Once they identify a risk of congestion forming, they will adjust the speed limit of certain smart motorways to reduce this risk. They will notify drivers on these motorways by altering the signs and speed limits.
All motorways have a standard speed limit of 70mph. Still, the regional traffic control centre may deem it necessary to reduce this limit to 60mph, or even 40mph, to avoid congestion building up further along with the motorway network.
What are the different types of smart motorways
‘All lane running’ schemes
When the ‘all lane running’ scheme is implemented, the hard shoulder lane switches to another official route for traffic. This scheme also uses variable speed limits to avoid traffic build-up as an extra precaution. On an ‘all lane running’ smart motorway, you can find emergency refuge areas every 2.5km along the motorway.
An example of an ‘all lane running smart motorway can be found at junctions 16-19 of the M6.
‘Dynamic hard shoulder’ schemes
The ‘dynamic hard shoulder’ scheme sees the hard shoulder lane becoming an additional lane. However, unlike ‘all lane running’, the hard shoulder can only be used on a ‘dynamic’ lane at peak times. The speed limit of the dynamic hard shoulder is set to 60mph, and drivers are notified of its availability by a red X on the gantry above it.
You can find an example of this type of smart motorway on the M1 at junctions 10-13.
‘Controlled motorway’ schemes
‘Controlled motorway’ schemes are simply smart motorways monitored and where the speed limit is adjusted accordingly. Except for emergencies, the hard shoulder lane is not permitted on ‘controlled motorways’. The chosen speed limit will be displayed on overhead signs. If this sign is blank, then the standard 70mph limit applies.
An example of this type of smart motorway can be found in the western section of the M25.
The different types of signs you can expect to see on a smart motorway
To identify a smart motorway and what kind of scheme is permitted, you must learn the corresponding signage you’ll encounter along the way. The main signs that you’ll see include:
Lane closed signs
The red ‘X’ sign not only applies to smart motorways but can be found on all types of U.K. roads. It simply means do not enter the lane it is positioned above, regardless of whether you drive on an ‘all lanes running’ motorway.
The highway management authority may have decided to switch off the hard shoulder lane in response to an emergency. Perhaps someone has had to pull over and take advantage of the extra lane meaning that it cannot be used for driving.
Ignoring the lane closed sign could be hazardous for all involved and will land you a hefty fine if you fail to adhere to it. The route closed sign causes a significant amount of problems for smart motorways.
Variable speed limit signs
Variable speed limit signs are displayed on signs above the smart motorway, making them easy to spot for all motorists. They consist of the standard red circle with the speed limit number in white in the middle. There should be a corresponding speed limit sign in’ all lane running’ motorways above each lane.
What are the rules on smart motorways?
Besides obeying the variable speed limits and avoiding lanes marked with ‘X’ signs, the main rule of smart motorways relates to Emergency Refuge Areas (ERAs). These can be found in the place of hard shoulder roads on dynamic and all lane running motorways and are for the exclusive use of those in an emergency.
You are not permitted to use an ERA unless you need to in the case of an emergency or your car has broken down. In addition to this, you are not permitted to re-enter the motorway from an ERA until you have been granted permission to do so.
How do smart motorway cameras work?
Like regular motorways, smart motorways have several cameras positioned along the road. These cameras catch anyone who disobeys the set speed limit, even on smart motorways with variable speeds. They are adjusted depending on the speed limit set by the regional traffic control centre.
It is important to note that the cameras lag slightly behind the variable speed limit signs for speed limit changes. This is to allow drivers sufficient time to slow down – or speed up so that they meet the new speed limit set. If no variable speed limit is set, the cameras will still monitor the road to ensure all vehicles stay under the 70 mph limit.
There will also be speed cameras positioned along closed lanes marked with a red X to identify anyone who ignores the road closure.
For more guidance, check out our speed camera hotspots to help identify areas across the country with the most speed cameras.
Difficult to spot
The cameras added to smart roads are more inconspicuous than usual, making it difficult for motorists to spot them. The model used is HADECS 3, small, grey, and invisible when speeding past them on the smart motorway.
Instead of filming the road, HADECS 3 cameras take photographs when their high-functioning sensors detect a speeding motor. Once seen, the camera takes three quick snapshots of the motorists and sends these to the nearest enforcement centre.
Smart motorway speeding and fines
Despite the lag in the time it takes for speed cameras to adjust, drivers, need to change gear as soon as they become aware of a change in the speed limit. Failure to do so will land you a fine, and in the worst-case scenario, you may even incur points on your license.
If you are caught breaking the variable speed limit – whatever it may be at the time – then you could be fined up to £2,500. You may also be given 6 penalty points on your licence for speeding.
Red X fine
For driving on a lane with a red X sign, motorists will be fined £100 and be given 3 points on their license.
Still not sure? No problem, keep updated and informed by checking our highway code changes: new driving laws & rules in 2022.
What to do if you breakdown on a smart motorway
The hard shoulder lane is used as an additional driving lane, so it can be confusing to know what to do if you get in an accident when driving on a smart motorway. If you are involved in an accident or your car has broken down, you should immediately put on your hazard warning lights, and make your way to the nearest Emergency Refuge Area (ERA).
However, if the accident or breakdown is terrible, it may not be possible for you to reach the nearest ERA. In this case, you should try to move your car to the most immediate verge and exit the vehicle via the left-hand door. At this point, you should wait for assistance from behind the safety barriers.
If you cannot do this, put your hazard lights on and dial 999 and Highways England on 0300 123 5000.
If you do breakdown, why not check out our guide on what to do when your car breaks down: 22 simple steps to help take the pressure off the situation and ensure you are prepared if an incident like this occurs again.
What is an Emergency Refuge Area (ERA)?
An Emergency Refuge Area is designed to replace the hard shoulder lane and is where drivers should make their way to, if possible, in the result of an accident.
There should be 1 ERA every 1.5 miles along the smart motorway. You will be able to identify them by the orange SOS telephone symbols and the blue signs.
Are smart motorways safe?
There are several concerns regarding intelligent motorways, which is part of the reason why the government recently suspended their rollout of them.
The main issue regards the removal of the hard shoulder lane, which drivers rely on in the event of an accident or breakdown. Having the shoulder lane vacant is that those who need it can pull over at any point, as the street runs alongside the complete length of the other lanes.
This is not possible with ERA stations, as there can sometimes be over a mile between the point where the motorist breaks down and where they can park and wait for assistance. It is undeniable that this is a significant safety concern.
The Department of Transport has announced that the innovative motorway project will only continue once more research has been completed regarding safety. This means that a more practical solution to the absence of shoulder lanes can be formulated, and smart motorways will be made safer in the future.
Either way, ensure that you are adequately insured for all kinds of outcomes while driving on a smart motorway by getting temporary car insurance, temporary van insurance, or learner driver insurance.
How does a smart motorway detect a stationary vehicle?
Smart motorways detect a stationary vehicle using Motorway Incident Detection and Automated Signalling (MIDAS). This system can see early signs of slowing traffic as soon as noticeable.
Will smart motorways be stopped?
The development of smart motorways has been postponed for the time being because of campaigns against their construction due to health and safety concerns. The Transport Committee has announced that operations will resume once sufficient safety research has been completed, which will take 5 years.
How far apart are refuge areas on smart motorways?
Refuge areas are positioned between 500 and 800 metres apart on smart motorways.
How do smart motorways prevent traffic bunching?
Smart motorways open up the hard shoulder lane for vehicles and implement a variable speed limit to increase the number of cars that can drive. This prevents congestion as it provides more space for cars to move.
Smart motorways are a good initiative as it reduces the time commuters spend on the road, helping them get home sooner and reducing the carbon footprint produced.
However, given the health concerns, they need much improvement.
For the time being, you must familiarise yourself with the tips presented in this article, such as obeying the variable speed limit and staying well clear of lanes marked with a red x, as, if you regularly drive through Britain, you’ll likely encounter an active smart motorway at some point.