Smart Motorway - everything you need to know

Smart Motorway - everything you need to know

23 March 2020 | Kate Kozlowska | 13 min read

What is a Smart Motorway?

smart motorway is a motorway section that uses traffic management methods to increase capacity and reduce congestion in busy areas.

These methods include using the hard shoulder as a running lane and using variable speed limits to control traffic flow.

Highways England (previously the Highways Agency) developed smart motorways to manage traffic, minimising environmental impact, cost, and time to construct by avoiding building additional lanes.

What different types of Smart Motorways are there?

There are three types of schemes that are classed as smart motorways.

All-lane running  - As the name suggests, 'all lane running' schemes permanently remove the hard shoulder and convert it into a running lane. Lane 1 (formerly the hard shoulder is only closed in case of an accident). In this case, a closure of one or more lanes will be signalled by a red X on an overhead gantry and/or on a verge-mounted sign, meaning you must exit the lane/s as soon as possible.

Dynamic hard shoulder - this scheme involves opening the hard shoulder as a running lane to traffic at busy periods to ease congestion. On these stretches, a solid white line differentiates the hard shoulder from the standard carriageway. In addition, overhead signs on gantries indicate whether the hard shoulder is open to traffic.

Controlled motorway - have three or more lanes with variable speed limits, but retain a traditional hard shoulder. These variable speed limits are displayed on overhead gantry signs. If no speed limit is displayed, the national speed limit is in place. The hard shoulder should only be used in a genuine emergency.

Are Smart Motorways dangerous?

Many people believe that smart motorways are more dangerous than conventional motorways because of the lack of a hard shoulder.

The road safety group was one of many organisations to express concern recently at the risks posed by the absence of hard shoulders, the cost-saving increase in distance between refuge areas and the problems relating to vehicles being stranded in motorway lanes.

It has criticised the lack of clear information relating to the use of smart motorways. It has called for an end to the use of smart motorway jargon, such as 'all-lane running' and 'live lanes', which will mean nothing to the average driver.

In October 2019, the future of Smart Motorways was called into question following an admission by Highways England that removing the hard shoulder is dangerous had not been thoroughly investigated. GEM road safety officer Neil Worth demanded the Government takes action. Saying: "The toll of deaths, injuries and near-misses on smart motorways in recent years is unacceptably high."

Smart Motorway 18-point action plan

The Government announced a series of measures to improve the safety of smart motorways in March 2020, following a review commissioned by transport secretary Grant Shapps.

The future of the roads has been secured with an 18-point improvement plan announced on 12th March 2020:

  • Abolishing the confusing "dynamic hard shoulder" smart motorways, where the hard shoulder operates only part-time and is a live running lane the rest of the time.
  • Substantially speeding up the deployment of "stopped vehicle detection" technology across the entire "all lane running" smart motorway network. So stopped vehicles can be detected, and the lanes closed more quickly. Highways England is to accelerate its plans and install the technology within the next 36 months, setting a clear public timetable for the first time.
  • Faster attendance by more Highways England traffic officer patrols on smart motorways where the existing spacing between places to stop in an emergency is more than one mile. To reduce the attendance time from an average of 17 minutes to 10 minutes.
  • Reducing the distance between places to stop in an emergency to three-quarters of a mile where feasible. On future schemes, motorists should typically reach one every 45 seconds at 60mph. Thus, the maximum spacing will be 1 mile.
  • Installing 10 additional emergency areas on the existing M25 smart motorways on the sections with a higher rate of live lane stops. Where places to stop in an emergency are furthest apart.
  • Considering a national program to install more emergency areas where places to stop in an emergency are more than one mile apart.
  • Investigating M6 Bromford viaduct and the M1 at Luton, Sheffield and Wakefield where there is evidence of clusters of incidents. Where an intervention is considered likely to make a difference, we will look to make changes at these locations.
  • Making emergency areas more visible. All emergency areas will have a bright orange road surface, dotted lines on the surfacing showing where to stop. Better and more frequent signs on approach and signs inside giving information on what to do in an emergency. These will be installed by the end of spring 2020.
  • More traffic signs giving the distance to the next place to stop in an emergency, so you will almost always be able to see a sign. Typically, these will be between approximately 330 and 440 yards apart.
  • More communication with drivers. We recognise that we could do more. We're committing to an additional £5m on national targeted communications campaigns to further increase awareness and understanding of smart motorways, how they work, and how to use them confidently.
  • Displaying 'report of obstruction' messages automatically on electronic signs triggered by the stopped vehicle detection system warns drivers of a stopped vehicle ahead. This is currently being trialled on the M25 and then a further trial on the M3.
  • Places to stop in an emergency shown on your satnav by working with satnav providers to ensure the locations are shown on the screen when needed.
  • Making it easier to call for help if broken down by working with car manufacturers to improve awareness of the use of the eCall 'SOS' button in newer cars to call for help.
  • We have changed the law to automatically detect 'red X' violations and enforcement using cameras. We will be expanding the upgrade of smart motorway cameras (HADECS) to identify more of those who currently ignore the 'red X'. The penalty is 3 points on the driver's licence and a £100 fine, or the driver can be referred to an awareness course.
  • An update of the Highway Code to provide more guidance.
  • Closer working with the recovery industry on training and procedures.
  • Reviewing existing emergency areas where the width is less than the current 15-foot wide standard. If feasible and appropriate, we will widen to this standard.
  • A review of the use of red flashing lights to commence immediately. We have listened to the calls for recovery vehicles to be allowed to use red flashing lights. We will begin work immediately on a review.

Tips for driving on Smart Motorways

  • Never drive in a lane closed by a 'red X'.
  • Keep to the speed limit shown on the gantries.
  • A solid white line indicates the hard shoulder - never drive in it unless directed.
  • A broken white line indicates a normal running lane.
  • If your vehicle experiences difficulties, e.g. a warning light, exit the smart motorway immediately if possible and find a place of relative safety to stop.

What to do if you break down on a Smart Motorway?

If you are unlucky enough to break down or be involved in an accident while on a smart motorway, you should follow these steps:

  • Use an emergency refuge area (ERA) if you can reach one safely.
  • If you are unable to reach the nearest ERA or exit your vehicle safely, follow these steps:
  • If you cannot get to an emergency refuge area, you should try to move on to the verge if there is no safety barrier and it is safe to do so.
  • In all cases, switch on your hazard warning lights.
  • If you stop in the nearside lane, exit your vehicle via the nearside (left hand) door if it is safe to do so and wait behind the safety barrier, if there is one. Suppose it is not possible to get to the nearside lane or exit your vehicle safely. In that case, you should stay in your vehicle with your seat belt on and dial '999' if you have access to a mobile phone.
  • When the relevant highways authority becomes aware of a breakdown or an incident on a smart motorway. They should switch on a 'red cross' sign on the gantries above the lane you're in to stop traffic from entering it.
  • If you cannot get to an emergency refuge area, you should try to move on to the verge if there is no safety barrier and it is safe to do so.
  • In all cases, switch on your hazard warning lights.
  • If you stop in the nearside lane, leave your vehicle via the nearside (left hand) door if it is safe to do so and wait behind the safety barrier, if there is one. Then contact Highways England via the roadside emergency telephone provided in all emergency refuge areas.
  • If you cannot move over to the nearside lane or if it is not possible to get out of your vehicle safely, you should stay in your vehicle with your seat belt on and dial '999'.

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