What are smart motorways and what do they mean for British drivers?

25 March 2020 Blog

Following a series of incidents on newly-adapted roads, smart motorways have certainly divided drivers. With hundreds of millions of pounds being spent to make some of the UK’s busiest motorways ‘smart’, the process is clearly underway, but it’s raised its fair share of questions as a result.

To clear up some of the confusion and uncertainty surrounding this new kind of motorway, we’ll delve into what exactly smart motorways entail, how safe they are, and what they mean for British drivers. 

What is a smart motorway?

A smart motorway is a section of a motorway that uses traffic management methods to increase capacity and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas. This is done through monitoring traffic via cameras and ‘active’ speed signs – these are overhead signs which flash up with new speed limits to regulate the flow of traffic accordingly in the event of accidents or congested periods. 
Effectively, smart motorways increase car capacity by 33%, costing much less, both financially and environmentally, than adding an extra physical lane. Currently, there are more than 20 stretches of smart motorways covering more than 400 miles in the UK, comprising three different types:
Controlled motorway: Controlled motorways have three or more lanes with variable speed limits, but still have the traditional hard shoulder in place – which should only be used in a genuine emergency.
The variable speed limits are displayed over gantry signs; in the event that no speed limit is displayed, then the national speed limit is in place. Speed cameras are used to enforce these.
However, some drivers have noted that sudden variable speed limit changes have forced them to slam on their brakes to reduce their speed in time. To accommodate this, Highways England (those responsible for putting smart motorways in place) say there is a slight lag between the change in speed limit and its enforcement. 
Dynamic or hard shoulder running: These types of motorway involve opening the hard shoulder as a running lane to traffic during busy periods in order to ease congestion. Overhead gantries indicate whether the hard shoulder is open to traffic; if they are blank or a red X is displayed, the hard shoulder must not be used. 
A red X on the gantry means you must exit the lane as soon as possible; ignoring it is extremely dangerous and could lead to a fine as a result. 
As with controlled motorways, speed limits are also variable.
All lane running: With this type, the hard shoulder is removed entirely and converted into a running lane. The previous hard shoulder, lane one, is only closed to traffic in the event of an incident. If this is the case, a lane closure will be signalled by a red X on the gantry above, meaning you must exit the lane as soon as possible. 
Much like the previous two types, the rules surrounding the red X, as well as the issues of variable speed limits, also apply. 

How safe are smart motorways?

The general opinion is that smart motorways are seen as being more dangerous than conventional motorways, due to the lack of a hard shoulder, which some motorists view as a huge compromise on safety.
Highways England, however, has published statistics based on data gathered since the opening of the first smart motorway from 2006, which states:
  • Journey reliability has improved by 22%
  • Personal injury accidents have been reduced by more than half
In addition, Highways England has also stated that since opening, the casualty rate across the nine all lane running schemes has reduced by 28%. With regards to the latest generation of smart motorways, they’ve estimated that there’ll be a further 18% reduction in risk compared to conventional motorways.
The RAC however, has argued that there needs to be changes made to these motorways in order to improve their safety, especially on all running lanes where the hard shoulder has been removed.
Smart motorways do provide ERAs (Emergency Refuge Areas) in an attempt to provide extra safety measures. Earlier smart motorways featured them every 500-800 metres but in 2013, the Department for Transport decided that all new schemes would be of the all lane running variety, stating that ERAs could be distanced as far apart as 1.5 miles. 
Emergency services and breakdown rescue providers were concerned about such a distance with regards to both road users and their own staff. Additionally, the removal of a hard shoulder means that emergency services have also had trouble reaching accident scenes. 

Smart motorways and fines

Obviously, the normal road rules and laws still apply on smart motorways, but there are a few points, in particular, that are worth making clear. 
The same laws and sentencing applies for speeding on a smart motorway, but since there are more cameras and variable speed limits, there’s a greater chance of getting caught and fined. 
This is further compounded by the fact that smart motorways enforcing variable speed limits can still catch you travelling over the national speed limit when a variable speed limit isn’t in place. And since the latest speeding sentencing structures could lead to as much as a £2,500 fine, motorists in violation of motorway rules are set to pay the price. 

What happens if I break down on a smart motorway?

If you happen 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 are able to reach one safely
If you aren’t able to reach an ERA or exit your vehicle, follow these steps:
  • Switch on your hazard lights.
  • If you can stop in a nearside lane, exit your vehicle via the nearside (left hand) door if it’s safe to do so. Wait behind the safety barrier if one is available. It is important to stand as far away from traffic as possible, whilst keeping your car in sight. 
  • If this isn’t possible, stay in your vehicle with your seat belt on and dial 999 if you have access to a mobile phone.
Once the relevant highway authority is aware of the incident, they’ll switch on a red cross sign on the gantries above the lane you’re in to stop traffic from entering it.

What are the concerns surrounding smart motorways?

As we've seen, the rollout of smart motorways has not been without its share of criticism. Amid concerns of safety and an increase in the number of fatalities, a proposed national rollout was put on hold earlier this year. 
Transport secretary Grant Shapps has stated that there will be no more stretches of smart motorway built until the government has completed its review that was announced last year. While sections of these motorways will remain open, the temporary freeze has come as the result of a 20-fold increase in the number of near misses in some locations. 
Since then, an 18-point plan has been unveiled by the government, which aims to tackle safety concerns, abolishing “dynamic” hard shoulders, speeding up detection technology for stopped vehicles and building more emergency refuge areas. 
Other additional measures announced to improve safety include:
  • Speeding up the deployment of stopped vehicle detection technology to cover the network within the next three years, allowing problems to be spotted within 20 seconds and lanes to be closed at a quicker pace.
  • Faster attendance from more Highways England traffic officer patrols on smart motorways.
  • Reducing the distance between places to stop in an emergency to three-quarters of a mile where feasible, and to a maximum of 1 mile.
  • Building 10 more emergency areas on the M25 that have had a higher rate of breakdown.
  • Increasing the visibility of emergency areas.
  • A £5m campaign to increase public awareness and knowledge of smart motorways.
  • Automatic detection of and enforcement action against drivers ignoring the red “X” sign in closed lanes.
Hopefully, these steps will help make smart motorways safer, so motorists can enjoy the proposed benefits of eased congestion without increased risk of an accident.  
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