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Your Guide to Smart Motorways

Your Guide to Smart Motorways

Smart Motorways are causing confusion and panic for drivers with the RAC reporting that 52% of drivers were unaware what an emergency refuge area was, and most not understanding what to do in the event of a breakdown without a hard shoulder.

Our guide to Smart Motorways explains what they are, which signal to look out for and what to do in the event of a breakdown. 

What is a Smart Motorway?

Smart Motorways were introduced in 2006 to ease the flow of traffic on congested stretches of motorway.  The capacity of the road is increased without the cost or disruption of widening the carriageway by using the hard shoulder temporarily or permanently as another normal lane.

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To achieve this a Smart Motorway uses Active Traffic Management.  Technology is used to monitor current traffic conditions and measures can be taken such as; changing speed limits to keep traffic moving, opening/closing lanes in response to obstructions, activate warning signs to inform of any hazards which may lie ahead and close lanes to provide emergency services with a clear pathway through.  These actions are controlled via a regional traffic centre, with responsibility of all smart motorways falling to Highways England.

There are three different types of Smart Motorway in use over England.

  1. Controlled Motorway – in this type of Smart Motorway the traffic is monitored, and the speed limits varied to keep a steady flow of traffic.  The hard shoulder is used only for emergencies only, permanently, and to show this a solid white line separates the hard shoulder from other lanes of traffic.
  2. Dynamic Hard Shoulder – in this type of Smart Motorway the hard shoulder can be used as a normal lane if traffic conditions have become congested along with variable speed limits to ensure a smooth flow of traffic.  The hard shoulder is easy identified as it is separated from other lanes using a solid white line.  This type of smart motorway was first used on the M42 in 2006.
  3. All Lane Running – this type of Smart Motorway has the hard shoulder permanently open as a usual lane.  It is divided from the other lanes by a broken white line on the road surface to show its equal status.  This type of smart motorway was first used in 2014 between junctions 23 and 25 on the M25.  A lane would only be closed on this type of motorway due to an emergency.

Do Smart Motorways Work?

After the first Smart Motorway was opened on the M42 in 2006, the Highways Agency analysed the data that was collected and found;

  • Journeys were on average 22% more reliable
  • The amount of personal injury accidents reported reduced by 50%
  • Where an accident did occur, it was less severe with zero fatalities and fewer road users seriously injured.

Signals to look out for on a Smart Motorway

Signals are displayed to the drivers on a Smart Motorway via signs on gantries that run overhead.  From here you can see which lanes are open to travel in and at which speed limited is currently in place.

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If you see a red X being displayed above one or more of the lanes on the motorway, then these lanes have been closed.  This may be due to an emergency or hazard further along the road that you cannot see yet.  You must not travel in a lane marked with a red X, you should move out of this lane safely and promptly.

Speed limits on a Smart Motorway are variable to keep traffic moving and reduce the need for stop/start driving.  The current speed limit is displayed in a red circle.  The speed limit displayed is legally enforceable.  If you travel faster than this speed limit you can be fined.  If there is not a speed limit displayed, the national speed limit of 70mph is applied.

What should I do if I break down on a Smart Motorway?

What to do in the event of a breakdown causes the most confusion for motorists.  As drivers, up until this point, we all knew that if we broke down on the motorway we needed to get to the hard shoulder … so the thought of the hard shoulder not being there can be unsettling.

  • If you break down on a Smart Motorway you should immediately put on your hazard lights to warn other drivers as you would on any other road.
  • If there is a hard shoulder, at that time, you should use this and call your breakdown service as normal.
  • If there is no hard shoulder and your car is driveable and there is an exit approaching, you should aim to exit the Smart Motorway and so remove yourself from the flow of traffic.  You can then find a safe place to stop and call your chosen breakdown service.
  • If there is no hard shoulder, your car is drivable, but there is no exit to use, you should look for the next Emergency Refuge Area.  There is currently an Emergency Refuge Area every 1.5 miles on a smart motorway, there are plans to increase this frequency to every mile.  An Emergency Refuge Area is marked by a blue sign featuring an orange SOS telephone signal.  These areas provide somewhere to pull over out of the flow of traffic.  Once you are here you can use the emergency phone to speak directly to Highways England, your exact location can be traced by the emergency phone used, so it is better to use the phone provided than your mobile phone.  They will assist you by sending out a traffic officer and reducing the speed limit near you to keep you safe while in the refuge area.  You can then call your breakdown service and await help.  A second call is encouraged to the Highways Agency using the emergency phone when you are again able to re-join the motorway, they can assist by reducing speed of those already in the lane to make your entrance to the motorway as safe as possible. 

Smart Motorway Quick Tips

  • Never drive in a lane marked with a red X.

  • If you breakdown, look for the nearest exit or Emergency Refuge Area.  Emergency Refuge Areas are signalled using a blue sign with an orange sos telephone symbol.

  • Abide by speed limits shown on overhead gantries. Travelling over the limit displayed can result in a fine.

  • Whether you have pulled over in an emergency refuge area or on the hard shoulder, you should always exit the vehicle via the passenger side and move away from the flow of traffic.
  • If you are on a Smart Motorway and your vehicle will not move, this is classed as an emergency situation.  In this event you should immediately put on your hazard lights and look to exit your vehicle safely.  If you cannot exit your vehicle safely, you should remain seated with your seatbelt on and call 999 from your mobile phone.  Smart Motorways are constantly monitored so if you become stranded between refuge areas, CCTV images will make the Highways Agency aware and a Highways Agency officer or Police Officer will be sent to help you.  The lane you are in can also be closed and speed reduced on other surrounding lanes to keep you as safe as possible.

Despite concerns, Smart Motorways are seen as the most affordable and most rapid solution to traffic congestion.  By 2020 even more of our motorway network is going to become smart, providing 472 extra lane miles to the existing network.

What do you think of Smart Motorways?

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