Everything you want to know about smart motorways (but probably haven’t been told)

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Author: | Updated: 11 Dec 2019 09:55

Mass celebrations, streets parties, firework displays and Prince Charles cutting a ribbon to make it official all took place in Greater Manchester recently when, after four years, the smart motorway was finally opened on the M60.

… None of that happened sadly, but I assume everyone was relieved and thankful and probably thought celebrations should have taken place after we’d been subjected to a useless 50mph blanket speed limit, endless congestion (that thing smart motorways are supposed to combat), a potential rise in emissions as a result of that congestion, and general frustration at a project that went one year over schedule.


How are we coping with life on the smart motorway so far? With the yellow average speed cameras of doom gone, I found myself being instructed to drive at 40mph by the variable speed limit signs and, despite driving at the instructed speed, I had one car tailgating me, lights flashing to pressure me into going faster. I pulled in to let him past and figured if he was that desperate for a speeding ticket then so be it.

Then on my return journey, someone was pootling along at 50mph, obviously brainwashed by four years of doing nothing but that despite the national speed limit sign being on.

So, kind souls that were at ContractHireAndLeasing, we thought we’d send out this public service announcement on the ins and outs of living with a smart motorway.

What is a smart motorway anyway?

Rather than your atypical motorway which uses the national speed limit at all times (barring an accident), a smart motorway uses variable speed limits as a way to manage and monitor traffic levels in order to reduce congestion, as well as using the hard shoulder as an additional lane to keep traffic flowing and account for increased capacity on busy sections of the motorway network.

Unfortunately that’s not the case for the M60 smart motorway, which if anything needed that ability to increase capacity at peak times, due to air quality issues…

A smart motorway falls into three categories.

The three types of smart motorway

Smart motorways come in three types: controlled, dynamic and all-lane:

Controlled motorways: This is the category the M60 falls into with three or more lanes beholden to variable speed limits and the hard shoulder only to be used in an emergency. The variable speed limits are displayed on a live overhead gantry and if nothing is displayed the national speed limit is in effect.

It is imperative you pay attention to the gantry speed limits as they are enforced by speed cameras, with a lag between when the limit is changed to allow drivers to reduce their speed gradually.

Dynamic hard shoulder: This involves opening the hard shoulder for use as an additional lane to ease congestion at busy periods. The overhead gantry will display and direct you as to whether the hard shoulder is open for use or not. If the sign above the hard shoulder is blank or displays a red X it cannot be used as a driving lane.

All-lane running: Perhaps the most controversial type of smart motorway, this scheme permanently removes the hard shoulder in order to convert it into a permanently open lane for traffic. Should a driver break down or have an accident, they are expected to try and reach an emergency refuge area on the carriageway.

What do I do if I break down?


Depending on the above, if you break down on a controlled smart motorway, simply move onto the hard shoulder safely with your hazard warning lights on.

If you break down when the dynamic hard shoulder isn’t in use, again treat it like you would a hard shoulder on a regular motorway. If the hard shoulder is in use, try to make it to an emergency refuge area – these are spaced out on average by one and a half miles.

If you break down on an all-lane running smart motorway, again try to make it to an emergency refuge area and exit via the passenger door.

If you can leave your vehicle safely, contact Highways England via the roadside emergency telephone provided in all emergency refuge areas. If it is not possible to get out of your vehicle safely, then you should dial the emergency services and keep your seatbelt on for protection.

Once the regional traffic control centre is aware of your situation, they can use the smart motorway technology to set overhead signs and close the lane to help keep traffic away from you. They will also send a traffic officer or the police to help you.

What is an emergency refuge area?

On dynamic and all-lane smart motorways, emergency refuge areas are marked with blue signs featuring an orange SOS telephone symbol on them. These are spaced, on average, every one and a half miles.

Do smart motorways work?

While concerns have been raised on the dangers of blanket speed limits, for example if everyone is doing 40mph how are you supposed to get over two lanes of traffic to reach your exit without speeding past, stats released by Highways England show per­sonal injury acci­dents have been reduced by over half with zero fatal­i­ties and fewer seri­ously injured.

Aside from this, the amount of emergency refuge areas is an issue which has been previously raised by the RAC: "In recent years, there has been a movement towards the permanent conversion of the hard shoulder into a running lane which has concerned us.

"The removal of the hard shoulder fundamentally increases the risk to drivers who might suffer a breakdown and are unable to reach a refuge area.

"To combat this, the RAC has worked with Highways England to increase the numbers of emergency refuge areas (ERAs), increase awareness and prominence of these by getting them repainted orange and make sure that the latest technology is used to detect when a vehicle is in trouble.

What are the smart motorway speed limits?

The same laws for a regular motorway apply for a smart motorway, but with variable speed limits and more cameras monitoring traffic, unless you’re paying attention the chance of being caught speeding grows.

As stated earlier, if the gantry displays a 40, 50 or 60mph limit you must adhere to it. If no special speed limit is displayed then the national speed limit applies.

What do I do if my lane has a red X above it?

One of the most important signs to get to know on a smart motorway is the red X. This indicates that a lane is closed.

A lane might be closed for any number of reasons such as debris in the road, or because of a person or animal on the road. There may be an accident or a breakdown up ahead and they may be keeping the lane clear for the emergency services.

If you see a red X closing a lane, move out of that lane promptly and safely. If you don’t, you may receive a fine.

Quick smart motorway tips to remember

  • 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 - don’t drive in it unless directed by the overhead gantry.
  • a broken white line indicates a normal running lane
  • if your vehicle experiences difficulties, eg warning light, exit the smart motorway immediately if possible
  • use the refuge areas for emergencies if there’s no hard shoulder
  • put your hazard lights on if you break down

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