What is a smart motorway? Speed cameras, traffic management and hard shoulder use explained

Less than half of drivers are aware of where to pull over safely when driving on a 'smart' motorway. Here's everything you need to know…

The introduction of smart motorways has been a controversial addition to the UK road network since 2013. While they are part of the existing motorway network, smart motorway sections rely on the use of several cameras along the route to manage speed and monitor the traffic flow to decide how best to cope with any scenario that should occur, whether it’s congestion, an accident or otherwise.

The current generation of smart motorway is designed to ease traffic flow during busy periods (i.e. rush hour) in congested areas around the country. This system is known as Active Traffic Management (ATM) and usually involves turning the hard shoulder into an additional lane of traffic to help ease the burden. Motorists are informed about the use of the hard shoulder as an extra lane via the overhead gantries than run along the entire route of the smart motorway.

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Despite being in place for several years now, drivers still feel unsure about the rules when driving along a smart motorway, especially what to do in the event of a breakdown. With the hard shoulder removed, many drivers fear that a simple breakdown will result in a possible collision, as the hard shoulder becomes an additional lane.  To combat this, extra emergency refuge areas are positioned at 1.6-mile intervals but this is not immediately clear to motorists. Safety concerns have led to Highways England increasing the number of smart motorway refuge areas, with one appearing every mile where possible.

Smart motorways: the background

The first smart motorway with hard shoulder running was opened in 2006 on the M42 in the West Midlands, but now there are smart sections found in many busy parts of the country. Sections of the M6 in Birmingham, M62 in Manchester, the M1 from London to Luton and further north all have hard-shoulder running available. The M25 has yet to use hard shoulder running, but the overhead gantries can post a variable speed limit during busy periods.

It’s hard enough to educate drivers about motorway discipline on conventional roads, but smart motorways require yet more awareness of a driver’s surroundings. The issue of emergency refuge areas is a case in point. While the RAC’s survey revealed half of motorists didn’t know what they were, these areas are clearly signposted on the motorway, while a trial scheme that saw refuge areas on the M3 painted orange is set to be introduced across the country.

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With emergency refuge areas being positioned 1.5 miles apart, that means it’s not far between sections. As smart motorways should be constantly monitored, if somebody does end up being stranded away from one of these areas, a Highways England patrol should be nearby to offer assistance. If your vehicle can move, they will attempt to get you to the emergency refuge area, while the overhead gantries will warn approaching drivers of the obstruction by using reduced speed limits and lane closure signs.

Those speed limit signs are there for a reason, and while some can be malfunctioning (it’s not uncommon for a single gantry to flash up 40mph limits when all others are blank) if you pass a number of gantries with flashing lights and lower speed limits, there’s a fair chance that there is trouble ahead that you need to slow down for. Even dropping your speed by a few mph well in advance could be the difference between cruising merrily along and being stuck in a jam.

More smart motorways planned

While drivers don’t feel educated about smart motorways, they’re here to stay. By 2020, even more of the motorway network is expected to be upgraded to smart status, which will provide more than 472 extra lane miles of capacity to the strategic road network.

While they will be more common, the experience of driving on a smart motorway will be daunting to those unfamiliar with how they work. RAC chief engineer David Bizley, said: “Even though the first smart motorway was created more than 10 years ago and more schemes have come into operation in the last few years, there will still be many people who have not driven on one purely as a result of where they live and drive. Existing signage for emergency refuge areas is clear but will be further improved to make it even better for everyone.

“It is essential that motorists understand how and when to use an emergency refuge area so they do not put their own safety and that of other road users at risk. Vehicles should pull up to the indicated mark on the tarmac and then the occupants should leave the vehicle from the passenger side. Everyone should stand behind the barriers and should use the emergency roadside telephone provided to speak to a Highways England representative.”

Smart motorway safety tips

Below are top tips on what to do if you encounter a problem on a smart motorway…

  • • Use an emergency refuge area if you are able to reach one safely. These are marked with blue signs featuring an orange SOS telephone symbol on them.
  • • If you can leave your vehicle safely, contact Highways England via the roadside emergency telephone provided in all emergency refuge areas. A traffic officer will either be sent to help, or the motorway signs will be set to temporarily close lanes or reduce speed limits whilst you remain in the emergency refuge area.
  • • A further call to Highways England is recommended when you plan to re-join the motorway so further restrictions can be put in place to make this as safe as possible.
  • • If you cannot get to an emergency refuge area but the vehicle can be driven, move it to the hard shoulder (where provided) or as close to the nearside verge or other nearside boundary as possible. In an emergency, Highways England advises to call 999. 
  • • In all cases, switch on your hazard warning lights, exit the car through the nearside door and stand on the far side of the safety barrier away from moving traffic.

Have you ever broken down on a smart motorway? Tell us what happened in the comments below…

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