Smart motorways remain a controversial subject more than a decade after they first began appearing.
Arguments continue over their safety compared with regular motorways and their construction has contributed to delays and congestion in many parts of the country.
However, the Government is determined to continue with their introduction and so it’s important to understand what smart motorways are, where they are and how to use them.
What are smart motorways?
Smart motorways are designed to ease congestion by permitting cars to be driven on the hard shoulder at least some of the time, with traffic being monitored and controlled via cameras and active speed signs which can vary the limit and indicate lane closures.
The idea is that smart motorways effectively add 33 per cent to motorway capacity for much less than it would cost in both financial and environmental terms to add a physical extra lane.
There are currently three types of smart motorway:
Controlled motorway (eg the western section of the M25): variable speed limits monitored via a regional traffic centre. You’re only allowed to use the hard shoulder in an emergency, for example a breakdown.
Dynamic hard shoulder (eg junctions 10-13 on the M1): vehicles can use the hard shoulder at peak times to ease congestion. The traffic control centre will put a speed-limit sign on the gantries above the shoulder to indicate it’s in use, and a red X above it when it isn’t. If you use a hard shoulder below a red X you’re liable to be fined. Emergency refuge areas (ERAs) are positioned at intervals for vehicle breakdowns. Concerns have been raised that the varying use of the hard shoulder could cause confusion. As a result no more dynamic hard shoulder stretches are being constructed and existing roads are being turned into all lane running
All lane running (eg M6 junctions 16-19): on these motorway stretches, the hard shoulder works as a normal lane all the time. Again, there are ERAs at regular intervals. The hard shoulder lane may be closed if there’s an incident. If this is the case a red X will be displayed above it on gantries
Where are the smart motorways?
There are currently 44 stretches of smart motorway in operation or under construction, all in England.
Most are concentrated on the M1, M6 and M25 but a total of 14 motorways have some smart motorway element, amounting to 345 miles of road. The majority of smart motorways are in England’s south-east and around Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield.
This map from Highways England shows their exact location, including new sections currently under construction.
Emergency refuge areas (ERAs)
Emergency refuge areas replace the hard shoulder on smart motorways.
As the name implies they are intended for use in emergency situations, such as a car developing a fault, where the driver can’t safely get to a service station or other off-ramp.
In most cases, the areas are around 110 feet long, 15 feet wide and the road surface is painted bright orange to make them more visible. An emergency phone connects directly to Highways England.
Currently there can be a gap of up to 1.5 miles between ERAs on all lane running roads, although Highways England is reviewing this with a view to cutting the distance to one mile or less on existing roads and has committed to shorter gaps on all new stretches.
Key rules to obey
ERAs on a smart motorway are strictly only for emergencies. Once you’re stationary in one, you must wait for permission from the authorities before pulling back onto the motorway.
Driving in a motorway lane with a red X on the gantry above it is an offence and you will be fined and issued with penalty points.
Smart motorway fines and speed cameras
Smart motorways are just like any other road in that ignoring the rules of the road - including speed limits - will see you fined and possibly given penalty points.
All smart motorways are monitored by cameras to track traffic incidents and enforce speed limits, including variable ones displayed on the overhead gantries.
Breaking the variable limit will see you handed a speeding fine but the cameras also operate even when variable limits are not in place. That means if there’s no limit displayed on a gantry you will still be fined if you exceed the national speed limit.
You will also be fined for ignoring the red X lane closed signs. As with speeding, this is enforced via gantry cameras and driving in a closed lane will see you fined up to £100 and given three points on your licence.