The first Smart Motorway was introduced back in 2006 and since then the scheme has spread throughout the country. Smart Motorways are stretches of road which use active traffic management systems with the aim to aid congestion and reduce accidents.

You can usually spot Smart Motorways by noticing the digital overhead signs which are used to display lane control and variable speed limit information to drivers. By using proactive tactics to open and close lanes, as well as raise and reduce speed limits, theoretically traffic flow can be improved, although the system is far from popular with many motorists.

What different types of Smart Motorway are there?

All lane running schemes

All Lane Running Motorway

These sections of motorway make use of the hard shoulder so that all lanes can be used for traffic.

Should an accident occur the outside lane will usually be closed to drivers so that it can be used by emergency services for access; if this is the case, a red 'X' will appear in the overhead electronic displays to signal that motorists need to vacate the lane.

There are significant risks to ignoring these signals, not least hefty fines (more on that later). In order to control traffic, variable speed limits can also come in to action and will be displayed overhead.

Controlled motorways

Controlled Smart Motorway

A controlled motorway still has a hard shoulder in place at all times but will use variable speed limits as well as lane closures to control traffic. Speed limits will often be enforced using speed cameras, so it's extremely important to pay attention to signals as they can change at any time.

Dynamic hard shoulder running schemes

Dynamic Hard Shoulder

Credit : The Telegraph

You can recognise dynamic hard shoulder running schemes by noticing that there is a hard shoulder marked out on the road, but it may become a normal lane for use during times of heavy or congested traffic.

As with all types of Smart Motorway, it's very important to pay attention to the signals overhead to take note of lane closures and variable speed limits for your own safety and to avoid penalties as the rules may be enforced by both police officers and cameras.

How to drive on a Smart Motorway

When using a Smart Motorway you should, of course, follow the usual steps for motorway driving but there are also extra rules which you should be aware of:

  • Ensure that your speed is always below the speed limit shown overhead.
  • If a lane closed by a red 'X' vacate the lane at the earliest safe opportunity.
  • Don't use the hard shoulder unless directed: it should be marked by a solid white line.
  • Normal running lanes are marked by a broken white line.
  • In the event of any problems with your vehicle exit the smart motorway as soon as it is safe to do so.
  • If there is no hard shoulder you can use refuge areas in an emergency.
  • If you break down use your hazard lights.

You can find further information about how to use Smart Motorways here.

Do Smart Motorways make driving safer?

Unfortunately, the jury is still out on this one. Whilst lane closures and speed limits can have a positive effect on reducing congestion and helping emergency services gain access to accidents, the removal of hard shoulders makes breaking down on Smart Motorways potentially more hazardous for drivers. The role of Smart Motorways is currently being reviewed by Highways England and no doubt alterations will come in the future.

What should you do if you break down or have an accident on a Smart Motorway?

It goes without saying that suffering a breakdown or an accident on a motorway of any kind can be an extremely stressful experience.

First of all, it's important to try and stay calm. If you are on a Smart Motorway then these rules could help:

  • Make sure to use your hazard warning lights to advise other motorists of the situation.
  • If you can reach an Emergency Refuge Area (ERA) then try to use it, they are highlighted with an orange SOS telephone symbol on a blue sign. Once safely outside of your vehicle contact Highways England by using the emergency roadside telephones.
  • You should never be further than 1.5 miles from an Emergency Refuge Area when travelling on a Smart Motorway but if it's not possible to reach one then try to position your vehicle on the verge if it is safe and there is no safety barrier.
  • If you are able to get your vehicle to the inside lane then exit your vehicle on the left, if it is safe to do so. Where there is a safety barrier in place you should wait on the other side of it. If it's not possible to reach the inside lane, wait inside your vehicle with your seatbelt on and dial 999 to contact the emergency services.

The future of Smart Motorways

With a review currently underway into the safety of certain types of Smart Motorway, it seems likely that some may not continue in their current guise. However, just like speed cameras, the use of technology to control traffic is surely here to stay in some form or another.

What fines can be issued for breaking the rules?

If you get caught speeding on a Smart Motorway you will normally face a minimum fine of around £100 and three penalty points on your license, although this can be greater if in cases of excessive speed.

Since June 2019 it is a criminal offence to drive in a lane marked by a red 'X' signal and if caught the punishment is a minimum fine of £100 and three penalty points on your license.