Smart Motorways Explained

smart motorways

Smart Motorways Explained

Smart Motorways are currently dividing the opinions of drivers across the country. Are they a good or a bad thing? Are they safe or unsafe? How do I use them? These are just a few of the many questions motorists are asking. This blog aims to help answer those questions for you.

So, what is a smart motorway?

Smart motorways are sections of the motorway that use traffic management methods to increase capacity and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas of the road.

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

Smart motorways were developed with the aim of managing traffic in a way that minimises environmental impact, as well as cost and time to construct, by avoiding the need to build additional lanes.

There are 3 different types of smart motorways:

All lane running schemes

All lane running schemes will permanently remove the hard shoulder and convert it into a running lane.

The hard shoulder becomes lane one, and will only be closed in the event of an accident. This lane closure will be signalled by a red ‘X’ on the gantry above. If you see a red ‘X’ over the lane you’re currently using, this means you will need to exist this lane as soon as possible, while continuing to drive sensibly.

All lanes will have a mandatory speed limit, shown on the gantry signs above the lanes. The speed limit will vary depending on traffic levels at the time. If no limit is displayed, this means that the national speed limit is in place. Speed cameras will be used to check that vehicles are adhering to the speed limits on smart motorways.

Some drivers have voiced concerns that sudden changes in the speed limit might cause problems such as vehicles needing to harsh break in order to slow down. Highways England have clarified that there will be a time gap from when the speed limit changes, to when the speed cameras will begin to enforce it, allowing drivers enough time to change their speed at a sensible rate.

CCTV will be used to monitor accidents or breakdowns and emergency refuge areas (ERAs) will be available at the side of the carriageway for those experiencing an emergency or fault with their vehicle.

Controlled motorways

Controlled motorways consist of 3 or more lanes with variable speed limits, but this type of smart motorways will retain its hard shoulder. The hard shoulder should only be used in a genuine emergency.

Speed limits and lane closures will operate in the same way as all lane running schemes (explained above.)

Dynamic hard shoulder running schemes

Dynamic hard shoulder running schemes will open 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 normal carriageway.

Overhead gantry signs will indicate whether the hard shoulder is open to traffic or not.

The hard shoulder must not be used if signs above are blank, or show a red ‘X’, which indicates an accident.

Speed limits will operate in the same way as the other two types of smart motorways (as explained above.)

Are they safe?

Some road users have raised their concerns that smart motorways may be less safe than conventional motorways, due to the lack of the hard shoulder. However, Highways England have published data that has been gathered since the first smart motorway opened in 2006. This data states that journey reliability has improved by 22% and that personal injury accidents have been reduced by more than half. Where accidents did occur, data shows that severity was much lower overall, with zero fatalities and fewer seriously injured.

Things to remember:

  • Never drive in a lane closed by a red ‘X’
  • If you are driving in a closed lane, exit the lane as quickly and safely as possible
  • Keep to the speed limit shown on the gantry sides. If no speed is shown, abide by the national speed limit
  • If the speed limit of your lane changes, adapt your speed quickly but safely
  • A solid white line indicates the hard shoulder – don’t drive in it unless directed¬†
  • A broken white line indicates a normal running lane
  • If your vehicle is experiencing difficulty, exit the smart motorway if possible
  • Use refuge areas in emergencies if the hard shoulder is unavailable
  • Emergency refuge areas are marked with blue signs, featuring an orange SOS telephone symbol


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