Your guide to staying safe on smart motorways in the UK

Posted on: 2 March 2021 at 4:56 pm
smart motorways

A smart motorway is a section of a motorway that uses traffic management methods to increase capacity and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas. These methods include using the hard shoulder as a running lane and using variable speed limits to control traffic flow. Highways England (previously the Highways Agency) developed smart motorways to manage traffic in a way that minimises environmental impact, cost and time to construct by avoiding the need to build additional lanes. 

What different types of smart motorway are there?

The three different types of smart motorway currently include:

  • All lane running’ schemes
  • Dynamic hard shoulder’ schemes
  • Controlled motorway’ schemes

Smart motorways are designed to improve safety and traffic flow. That is why they are a prestige project of the government. However, are they actually increasing the number of accidents on UK roads? Some think so. 

Using a combination of both sensors and digital signs, they guide traffic along the roads to avoid any traffic jams. In the future, the smart motorway will be the basis for autonomous driving. But for now there is some sharp criticism of how effective and safe smart motorways are in the UK. 

Many victims within a few kilometres

There have been 38 deaths on networked sections in the past five years. The total number of accidents is significantly higher, plus there are countless near-crashes occurring more frequently. The BBC has reported that only around 320 kilometres of the 3700 kilometres of the motorway network are equipped with intelligent traffic management systems.

Apparently, those responsible believe that the many digital displays are too confusing, especially in the modernised sections that do not have a hard shoulder – because this is used to achieve a better flow of traffic. Anyone who breaks down has to stop in moving traffic and can therefore increase the risk of an incident greatly.

The number of dangerous situations has increased dramatically

The danger is clear from an example: a section of the M25 motorway near London. Since the modernisation, the number of near-accidents there has increased dramatically. In the previous five years, there were 72 dangerous situations; in the following five years, there were 1,485 near-accidents – that is, 20 times as many.

On top of that, an inquiry revealed that a warning sign on the section had not been in operation for a full 336 days.

Now those responsible are reacting. An investigation should show how the sections can be made safer quickly. Among other things, it is expected that the hard shoulder will no longer be used in the future.

Follow our tips to drive safely on smart motorways:

  • Never drive in a lane marked with a ‘red X’ Motorists caught by the cameras driving in lanes with a ‘red X’ will receive three penalty points on their driving licence and face a fine of up to £100
  • Always stick to the speed limit displayed on the gantries
  • Never drive over the thick white line that marks the hard shoulder, unless clearly instructed.
  • A broken white line indicates a normally operational lane
  • If your vehicle encounters difficulties, such as a warning light or makes juddering noises, immediately exit the smart motorway if at all possible and stop as soon as it is safe to do so.

What are Emergency Refuge Areas?

Emergency refuge areas (ERAs), or SOS areas, are intended to act as places of refuge for vehicles on roads that don’t have hard shoulders. They are often painted a bright highly visible orange and are located at intervals of 1.5 miles on smart motorways.

What should I do if I break down on a smart motorway?

If your vehicle breaks down or is involved in an incident on a smart motorway, follow these steps:

  • Use an ERA if possible;
  • Use your hazard lights.
  • If you are in the ERA or on the nearside ALWAYS exit the vehicle and stay well behind the crash barrier. And turn your steering wheel full lock to the left

If you cannot reach the closest ERA or leave your vehicle safely, you should:

  • Move on to the verge if it doesn’t have a safety barrier, and you can do so safely;
  • Turn on your hazard warning lights

If you cannot get to a verge or a nearside lane, remain in your car and dial 999. Keep your seatbelt on.

If the worst happens, and you are involved in an accident on a smart motorway or any other type of public highway, it is essential – and a legal duty – to have valid insurance.