What Are Smart Motorways and How Should Drivers Use Them

There are around 2,300 miles of motorway in the UK and smart motorways make up 200 miles of these.

Smart motorway on the M62 West Yorkshire
A stretch of Smart Motorway on the M62 West Yorkshire

However, there are many more miles of smart motorway to come. A £1.5 billion investment in smart motorways back in 2015 means there are now multiple projects underway to turn Britain’s roads smart.

So what are smart motorways, how do they work and, most importantly, are they safe to travel on? If you’re feeling confused by all the technical jargon then you’ve come to the right place.

Read on to find out everything you need to know about smart motorways in the UK and how to travel on them safely. 

What are Smart Motorways? 

First things first: what is a smart motorway? Smart motorways are roads that use smart traffic management. The idea behind them is that this can be used to improve driving times, road conditions and the environmental impact of driving. 

They aim to increase the number of cars on the road without increasing congestion. To do this, smart motorways use variable speed limits to control traffic as it passes along them.

They have also ditched the hard shoulder and replaced it with something called the ‘running lane’. This creates more space on the road for cars. Different smart motorways use running lanes differently.

Different Types of Smart Motorway

There are three main types of smart motorways. Each of these uses the hard shoulder or running lane in a different way.

An ‘all lane running’ motorway uses the hard shoulder as an additional lane for traffic unless an incident occurs. In this way, a four-lane motorway can become a five-lane motorway and so on.

This running lane often has a slower speed limit in case it is needed urgently. In an emergency, signage on the motorway will indicate that drivers should keep the running lane clear.

‘Dynamic hard shoulder’ smart motorways allow more flexibility when it comes to the hard shoulder. These roads open the hard shoulder up as a running lane at peak travel times. This helps to reduce congestion when there are lots of cars on the road. 

Some smart motorways use their hard shoulder like normal motorways, keeping it free to use in an emergency. Instead, these ‘controlled motorways’ just use variable speed limits to control traffic. 

In order to travel safely on a smart motorway, it’s vital that drivers pay attention to road signage as this can change regularly. For example, a red X over the hard shoulder on all lane and dynamic hard shoulder roads means drivers should clear the running lane immediately. Missing this sign or ignoring it could put drivers at serious risk. 

So how safe are smart motorways to travel on? 

Are Smart Motorways Safe? 

A lot of people have their reservations about travelling on smart motorways. This is mainly due to the lack of a hard shoulder on the road. 

The hard shoulder on a motorway provides cars with somewhere to pull over in an emergency so they aren’t stuck on the road. It also is a vital access route for emergency vehicles. This is why 68% of people feel that removing this from the road makes smart motorways more dangerous. 

On top of this, if people aren’t properly educated about when to use the running lane, this puts drivers at risk. For example, a driver in the running lane during a traffic incident could cause a further crash with emergency vehicles. Drivers who have pulled up on the hard shoulder are also at risk if other drivers aren’t aware that they shouldn’t use it as a running lane.

Sign failures or poor signage also puts drivers at risk when using the hard shoulder and when they’re in variable speed limit zones. This puts a lot of pressure on drivers to keep their eye out for changes in signage. Failure to do so, or failure of the technology itself, could result in serious injuries.

Fortunately, so far this risk has resulted in more near-misses than actual collisions on the road. That said, the number of near-misses on smart motorways around the UK is twenty times more than that on regular motorways.

At some point, these higher rates of near misses are going to start turning into higher rates of actual road accidents. This is why safety on smart motorways is currently under review to help improve it. Let’s take a look at some of the measures that have been put in place to keep people safe when travelling on smart motorways so far.

Speeding Fines for Smart Motorways

Like all motorways across the UK, smart motorways have strict fines in place for exceeding speed limits. The idea is that this will incentivise drivers to maintain the proper speed limits on smart motorways. 

These fines can add up to as much as £2,500 and could lead to license suspension or points. Being caught speeding may also lead to you having to take a speed awareness course. 

Specific courses now provide additional training in using smart motorways safely. This aims to prevent drivers from making dangerous mistakes. Repeat offenders may face more severe penalties for their driving.

If you are travelling on a smart motorway and the signage doesn’t display a speed limit you should assume that the national speed limit is in place. This is 70 miles per hour on motorways for standard cars.

Drivers on smart motorways will all be monitored using multiple smart motorway speed cameras along the road. Because there is no hard shoulder this obviously makes police monitoring of the roads more difficult.

Fines for Ignoring Running Lane Signage

Fines are also in place for people who don’t follow the proper running lane signage along the road. These fines will be awarded to anyone who ignores signage purposefully or by accident. 

Camera monitoring of running lanes across the country is on the rise. Anyone who ignores signage will face a fine of £100. They’ll also receive three penalty points on their license.

Emergency Refuge Areas (ERAs)

Smart motorway fines aren’t the only way that the government is trying to increase safety on smart motorways around the country. They’re also trying to make all drivers safer by offering them an alternative place to stop in case of an emergency. This is where emergency refuge areas, ERAs, or SOS areas come in. 

These are places that you’ll find along the road on a motorway and they provide a safe place for drivers to pull over in an emergency. Every smart motorway has an ERA every 1.5 miles, although this could be improved by shortening this gap. Newer smart motorways designs leave a gap of no more than one mile between each ERA. 

These areas are clearly signposted along the road using blue and orange signage. There should also be regular signage along the motorways to indicate to drivers how far they are from the nearest ERA.

Once you arrive in one of these spots you should put your hazard lights on, get out of your car, and stand behind the crash barrier. Each emergency refuge area has an SOS phone that is free for people to use in order to call for help. It’s important that people only use these areas in emergencies rather than for leisure breaks. 

Unfortunately, a lot of drivers on the smart motorways are not aware of these areas as a place of refuge in an emergency. In fact, 25% of UK drivers admitted that they were unaware of this facility. In order to properly keep drivers safe on the road, it is extremely important that drivers are educated about these safety measures.

Safety Benefits of Smart Motorways 

With all of these problematic elements of smart motorways, you might be wondering why would anyone use them? And why is there such a push for more smart motorways in the UK? 

Well, in spite of the dangers, there are some safety benefits to driving on smart motorways. Ideally, once the other safety issues are resolved this will make them the safest roads to drive on the in Britain. 

Because smart motorways reduce congestion on the roads, they significantly improve journey times. They also make routes more reliable. This leads to an increase in the quality of people’s driving on the road. 

It means that fewer people are rushing to get from A to B and increases the likelihood of people taking a break from driving. This means that there are fewer reckless and fatigued drivers on the road. As a result, smart motorways can help to cut out a huge cause of motorway accidents across the UK.

The Bottom Line 

Now you know how to answer the question ‘what are smart motorways?’ As you can tell, these ingenious roads are far from perfect and there are still a lot of safety issues to review before they reach their full potential. The great news is that, once they do these could revolutionise travel in the UK.

For more tips on travelling safely on Britain’s roads, check out the rest of our blog!

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