What are Smart Motorways and How Do They Work?

What is a Smart Motorway?

A smart motorway is an area of the motorway which is designed to use traffic management tools such as variable speed limits and using the hard shoulder as a running lane to control the flow of traffic.

So, How Do Smart Motorways Work?

There are three different types of smart motorways in the UK; all lane running schemes, controlled motorways and dynamic hard shoulder running schemes.

All Lane Running Schemes involve permanently removing the hard shoulder and converting it into a running lane. On these types of smart motorways, the first lane is only closed to traffic should there be an incident. They also have overhead signs which display a mandatory speed limit which varies dependant on traffic conditions. CCTV is used to monitor the motorway for incidents so overhead signs can be adjusted.

Controlled Motorways typically have three or more running lanes all with variable speed limits, they still have a hard shoulder which can only be used in a genuine emergency. They also have overhead signs which display a mandatory variable speed limit.

Dynamic Hard Shoulder Running Schemes involved running the hard shoulder as a lane at busy times to ease congestion. Overhead signs will indicate whether the hard shoulder is open to traffic; if the sign does not indicate the hard shoulder can be used it is only for use in emergencies.

Concerns over Smart Motorways

As of October 2019, there are over 400 miles of smart motorway in the UK and plans to gain a further 300 miles by 2025 but are you happy driving on a smart motorway? First introduced on the M25 three years ago, smart motorways use technology to keep traffic flowing. However, a survey by the AA of more than 19,500 members more than a fifth thought them dangerous. They were much happier on a traditional motorway with a hard shoulder.

The 2019 RAC Report on Motoring found that motorists found 72% of drivers are concerned about not being able to reach an emergency area if they break down on an ‘all lane running’ motorway. For fleet drivers and owners who know their vehicles have to drive long distances, the time spent on smart motorways will be increasing as more are created. Breaking down is, therefore, a big concern, especially as so higher percentage of drivers, are concerned about the implications of breaking down on a smart motorway. It is important that drivers are trained on the impact of smart motorways and how to use them to avoid dangerous driving and to know what to do in an emergency.

Part of the problem might be that drivers haven’t checked out the smart motorway driving protocol. The basics are intuitive: follow the overhead signs, stick within the speed limit and don’t drive in a lane where the overhead gantry is marked with a red ‘X’.

But what happens if your vehicle breaks down or you’re forced to make some other kind of emergency stop? Because smart motorways use the hard shoulder to keep traffic flowing, your normal emergency ‘bolt hole’ may not be available. Instead ‘Emergency Refuge Areas’ (ERAs) are situated at intervals along the carriageway, marked with blue signs featuring an orange SOS telephone symbol.

The problem seems to be that a good number of drivers simply don’t know about ERAs or don’t realise that they’re there. In an effort to improve visibility, the Highways Agency is currently trialling more easily recognisable new style ERAs on the M3. The redesigned ERAs are designated with a bright orange road surface and better SOS signage. There is also an increased number of distance markers between ERAs alongside the carriageway.

In addition to the M3, sections of the M1, M6, M25 and M62 are now all-lane running smart motorways. So, on a ‘better to be prepared’ basis, if you haven’t already done so, it might be worth paying a quick visit to the Government website where you’ll find all you need to know about smart motorway protocol and what to do if your vehicle lets you down and there’s no hard shoulder to pull onto. It is also important to consider how protocol can change in different weather, particularly during winter.

Anticipated Fines

Since December 2016 around 80,000 letters have been issued to motorists who have broken the smart motorway rules. This has been as part of trialling and testing road-side cameras to detect lane violations. It is anticipated that Drivers could face fines of £100 and three penalty points on their licence from as early as March 2018 in a bid to reduce “dangerous” drivers who ignore the red ‘X’.

If you have drivers who are regularly up and down the country on our motorways, then it makes sense to keep a check on the status of their driving licence with regular checks via an online service such as dh Licence Check. For more information, please get in touch or request a demo.

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