What is a smart motorway?

Recent years have brought us smartphones and smart TVs. Now, we even have smart motorways! These new systems use advanced technology to actively manage the flow of traffic, helping you get from A to B in almost no time.

Find out everything you need to know about this new motoring concept with this handy guide.

The basics of smart motorways

The smart motorway concept is a government scheme controlled from Highways England’s regional traffic control centres. From here, operators can react to events on the road, as well as activating signs above the motorway that instruct motorists to act accordingly.

Highways England developed the smart motorway concept with a view to increasing capacity and reducing congestion. They set out to do this in a way that minimises environmental impact, disruption, overall cost and construction time by avoiding options that would require the construction of an additional lane.

Three versions of the smart motorway scheme are in action

There are three types of smart motorway scheme in operation across the country. These include:

Controlled motorways

This version features three or more lanes with variable speed limits, but retains the hard shoulder for use in emergencies. The speed limits are shown on overhead gantry signs, and are enforced using speed cameras. The speed limit is generally adjusted in line with traffic flow, but can also be altered in the event of an incident. Most UK motorways now have at least one controlled section.

Dynamic hard shoulder running

With this version, the hard shoulder can be opened as a ‘running lane’ for traffic to use at busy periods in order to ease congestion. A solid white line differentiates the hard shoulder from regular carriageways, while overhead signs on gantries indicate whether the hard shoulder is open to traffic. Dynamic hard shoulder running is now in operation on sections of the M42, M1, M6, M4 and M5.

All lane running

This version uses the hard shoulder as a permanent running lane for traffic. As with the other methods, the overhead gantry signs display mandatory speed limits. Though, in this case, the signs also depict whether or not a lane is closed using a red ‘X’. Broken white lines between all lanes indicates that each lane has the same status.
This solution was introduced to the M25 between junctions 23 and 25 in 2014, and there are plans to upgrade many stretches of motorway to all lane running in future.

Breaking down on a smart motorway

The hard shoulder used to be a refuge for vehicles that broke down on the motorway. Smart motorways do not always have a hard shoulder, so the breakdown procedure is slightly different.

If your car starts to indicate that it might be about to break down, try to drive it to an emergency refuge area (ERA), motorway services or the next junction. If your car can’t make it that far, move the vehicle off the carriageway (only when safe to do so). Don’t stop in a live lane unless there’s no other option.

If you do stop in a live lane, use your hazard warning lights to alert other drivers. Then, move into the left hand lane and exit the vehicle via the left hand door. Once out of the car, wait behind the barrier if possible.

In circumstances where it’s not safe to exit the vehicle, stay inside, keep your seatbelt on and dial ‘999’. As smart motorways are designed to react quickly to incidents, once you have contacted the authorities (whether it’s the police or Highways England), they will soon be able to close the lane.

So, there you have it! Your handy guide to driving on a smart motorway.

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