Expert advice: How to drive and stay safe on smart motorways

smart motorways

Variable speed limits are a vital element of smart motorways

Smart motorways are possibly one of the biggest shake ups to our motorway network since the M1 opened in 1959. They use variable speed limits to manage the flow of traffic. And in some cases, by opening the hard shoulder, the government has managed to increase traffic capacity without spending billions on building new roads. However, the smart motorways do take some getting used to. Here’s what you need to know.

What is a smart motorway?

There are three basic types of smart motorways. Controlled motorways use cameras to manage the traffic flow. On hard-shoulder running, the hard shoulder is turned into an active lane during busy times of the day to give the motorway more capacity. The third category is all-lane running where the hard shoulder is a permanent lane.

Where will you find them?

  • Controlled motorways: sections of the M1, M20, M25, M26, M42, M60
  • Hard shoulder running: sections of the M1, M4, M5, M6, M42, M62
  • All-lane running: sections of the M1, M3, M6, M25, M62

How do they work?

Highways England regional control rooms oversee the sections of our smart motorways. They decide on the speed limits and whether to open the hard shoulder to traffic depending on how heavy congestion is. If the hard shoulder is a permanent lane, they can take the decision to close it to traffic if someone breaks down in it.

What do drivers need to be aware of?

The most important thing about smart motorways is to keep an eye on the gantries above. These display the active speed limit and they tell you if a lane is open to traffic. Perhaps more importantly, they tell you whether it’s closed with a red cross above that lane. If there is a speed limit symbol above the hard shoulder, it’s open for use as a regular lane. Both regular and average speed cameras enforce the variable limits.

What happens if you break down?

The theory is that you should attempt to make it to one of the emergency refuge areas. These are shown by blue signs with an orange SOS telephone symbol. These phones link you to the Highways England control centre. If you can’t make it to the refuge area, you should put your hazard lights on and if you can, come to a stop in the left-hand lane. The operators in the control room should spot you. They will then be able to close that lane and send a traffic officer or the police to your rescue. However, there is a chance that you may be stranded for some minutes in a lane that still has speeding cars in it.

Should you stay or should you go?

According to Highways England, if you and your passengers can leave your car safely, do so by the left-hand doors and stand behind the safety barrier. If you can’t, stay in your vehicle with your seatbelt on and dial 999.

How close are the emergency refuge areas?

This is one area that concerns me slightly about smart motorways, particularly those where the hard shoulder is used as an active lane. Highways England says the emergency refuge areas are never further than 1.5 miles away. But if your car suddenly starts to slow for no apparent reason, 1.5 miles might as well be 15 miles. And what happens if your car suffers a sudden, total electrical failure at night? You should be aware that on very rare occasions, smart motorways could make you very vulnerable indeed to other road users.

How to avoid breaking down

Prevention really is the best way forwards here. If you’re on a motorway and you think your car may conk out, leave the motorway as soon as you can. That means if your fuel light is on or another warning light illuminates, take it seriously. Head for the nearest exit to get it checked out. Below are various guides I’ve compiled on how best to look after your car.

How to check and fill your oil

How to maintain your tyres

All you need to know about batteries

Why have we got smart motorways?

Smart motorways are an innovation by the government designed to avoid the expense and aggravation of physically increasing the number of lanes on motorways. Highways England claims that smart motorways have added 4000 miles of carriageway to the UK network. It expanded the smart motorway network across the country after a pilot project on the M42 showed a 22 per cent improvement in journey reliability and a significant reduction in injury accidents.

self-driving carsNick Reid is head of automotive technology for Green Flag and is a fellow of the Institute of the Motor Industry

3 comments on “Expert advice: How to drive and stay safe on smart motorways

  1. Steve 27/05/2017 3:16 PM

    How do I avoid ‘smart motorways’? Does anyone print / host a map of which motorways have ‘smart’ regions. At present I avoid the M1 and all motorways south of the M62

  2. John carr 18/03/2020 10:11 PM

    Do motorists who travel on motorways actually, expect the vehicle to break down.
    I would suggest that most of us do not, and the last thing we expect is to end up stationary in a live running lane and then have to run for our lives to escape an imminent
    The whole point of the hard shoulder was to provide that tiny bit of protection for the “unexpected”
    O Kay, when motorways were originally devised vehicles were to say the very least unreliable, and the hard shoulder had to be included.
    Today’s vehicles and improved technology has increased the reliability no end, but like all mechanical and electrical components they are on occasion subject to instant failure.

    Experienced drivers could in the past manage to extract some distance following a mechanical failure by juggling the gears or keeping the car moving as best they could
    but sadly vehicles safety circuits ,systems auto gear boxes prevent this from being carried out so you have to stop.

    Hard shoulders are the only safety nets afforded to drivers and their passengers in the event of a fire, which appear to be on the increase these days so it is absolutely essential to retain them whilst also providing accessibility for emergency vehicles in the event of a major incident.

  3. Paul McCormick 13/10/2020 7:53 AM

    And what about AWD vehicles that can’t be towed ? Not to mention the towing costs incurred when the highways England people turn up to recover you

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