What are smart motorways? How they work, and why there are questions over their safety

What are smart motorways? How they work, and why there are questions over their safety
What are smart motorways? How they work, and why there are questions over their safety

The UK’s smart motorway network is under scrutiny after new data revealed a dramatic rise in near-misses as well as evidence of fatalities linked to the controversial roads.

A BBC Panorama investigation found a 20-fold increase in near-miss incidents on one stretch of the M25 and revealed that 38 people had been killed on smart motorways in the last five years.

The programme comes admit growing calls to stop the roll-out of smart motorways, with the AA saying its patrols won’t recover vehicles broken down on them and the head of Highways England admitting some stretches are “too complicated”.

What is a smart motorway?

There are currently more than 20 stretches of smart motorways covering more than 400 miles, mostly across England.

They are designed to ease congestion by permitting cars to be driven on the hard shoulder at least some of the time, with traffic being monitored via cameras and ‘active’ speed signs which can vary the limit.

The idea is that smart motorways effectively add 33 per cent to motorway capacity for much less than it would cost in both financial and environmental terms to add a physical extra lane. But their safety has been questioned and many drivers are confused by the rules around them.

Read more: Police chief calls for speeding fine increase

The types of smart motorway

The three types of smart motorway currently in use are:

Controlled motorway (eg the western section of the M25): variable speed limits monitored via a regional traffic centre. You’re only allowed to use the hard shoulder in an emergency, for example a breakdown.

Dynamic or hard shoulder running (eg junctions 7-9 on the M42): vehicles can use the hard shoulder at peak times to ease congestion. The traffic control centre will put a speed-limit sign on the gantries above the shoulder to indicate it’s in use, and a red X above it when it isn’t. If you use a hard shoulder below a red X you’re liable to be fined. Emergency refuge areas (ERAs) are positioned at intervals for vehicle breakdowns. These are the stretches Highways England has admitted are too complicated and it has said that no more will be built

All lanes running: on these motorway stretches, the hard shoulder works as a normal lane all the time. Again, there are ERAs at regular intervals. The hard shoulder lane may be closed if there’s an incident. If this is the case a red X will be displayed above it on gantries

smart motorways
There are several smart motorway projects being developed right now (Image: Haymarket Publishing)

Smart motorway fines

Smart motorways are just like any other road in that ignoring the rules of the road – including speed limits – will see you fined and possibly given penalty points.

All smart motorways are monitored by cameras to track traffic incidents and enforce speed limits, including variable ones displayed on the overhead gantries.

Breaking the variable limit will see you handed a speeding fine but the cameras also operate even when variable limits are not in place. That means if there’s no limit displayed on a gantry you will still be fined if you exceed the national speed limit.

You can also be fined for ignoring the red X lane closed signs. Since June 2019, police forces have had access to data from the gantry cameras and been able to issue fines automatically, rather than relying on officers on the spot taking action.

smart motorways
Smart motorway speed camera operate even when there is no variable limit. Picture: Shutterstock

Emergency refuge areas (ERAs)

The history of the frequency of ERAs on smart motorways has been controversial. Early smart motorways had them every 500-800 metres, but in 2013 the Department for Transport decided that all new schemes would be of the ‘all lanes running’ type and that there could be as much as 1.5 miles between ERAs.

Emergency services and breakdown rescue providers were uneasy about this from a safety perspective, both for road users and for their own staff. In an RAC survey, 84 per cent of drivers thought that the hard shoulder was important in breakdowns and accidents, and 82 per cent warned that they would feel “very concerned” in the event of a lane-one breakdown on an ‘all lanes running’ section.

Read more: UK speeding fines – how much you’ll pay

The ability of emergency services to reach accident scenes has been impacted by the effective removal of the hard shoulder to drive along. The strategy devised to get around this was to close the other side of the motorway and get to the accident that way.

At the start of 2018, Highways England said that that the distance between ERAs would be cut to one mile wherever possible, and that they would be painted orange to enhance their visibility. However, the RAC has said that new schemes are still be proposed with larger gaps and called for more rapid progress to address the issue.

Key rules to obey

Pay attention to the overhead gantries and observe any restrictions or closures indicated on them. Driving in a motorway lane with a red X on the gantry above it is an offence, as is exceeding any speed limit displayed on the gantry. If the gantry isn’t displaying a limit, the national speed limit still applies and gantry speed cameras can detect you breaking it.

ERAs on a smart motorway are strictly only for emergencies. Once you’re stationary in one, you must wait for permission from the authorities before pulling back onto the motorway.

If your car begins to exhibit a problem try to get off the motorway completely, if that’s not possible aim for the next ERA. If you have to stop in a live lane put your hazard lights on and, if it is safe to do so, leave the car by the nearside doors. Find the nearest roadside emergency phone and alert the operator to the situation.

Read more: What to do if you break down on a motorway

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