What Is A Smart Motorway and How To Drive On One in 2024
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What Is A Smart Motorway and How To Drive On One in 2024

Smart motorways were first introduced officially by the Highways Agency back in 2013, with the first trial being held on the M42 way back in 2006. These types of motorways are designed to control speeding, detect broken down vehicles and control hard shoulder closures in accordance with the volume of traffic on the roads.

For many drivers, there will hardly seem any difference between these ‘smart’ motorways and regular motorways. So what makes a motorway ‘smart’ and how do you drive on one safely?

Features Of Smart Motorways

There are 3 basic types of smart motorway:

  • ‘Controlled motorways’ that use cameras to manage the flow of traffic on the roads
  • ‘Hard shoulder running’ motorways, where the hard shoulder is turned into a lane during busy periods.
  • ‘All lanes running’ where the hard shoulder is a permanent lane and only closed in the event of an obstruction.

Of these 3 types of smart motorways, all have a number of different features designed to aid drivers and prevent accidents, some of the key features include:

  • CCTV fed into regional control centres – these are used to catch speeders and monitor traffic levels and incidents.
  • Variable speed limits – these will appear in signs on gantries above a motorway and can be used to slow traffic down.
  • Overhead or near side information signs – these warn drivers of upcoming traffic, an accident in the road or a lane closure.
  • Emergency refuge areas – these are found at regular intervals and act as a refuge point for drivers where the hard shoulder is in use. These refuges are not long enough to gain enough speed to safely rejoin the motorway so stranded drivers will need to contact the motorways control centre, who can assist the driver back on.

How Do Smart Motorways Prevent Traffic from Bunching Up?

Smart motorways have evolved and developer various technologies and strategies to prevent traffic from bunching up and help improve overall traffic flow. Here are some of the more common methods you’ll typically find:

Variable Speed Limits

Smart motorways can adjust speed limits dynamically based on traffic conditions. This helps in smoothing out traffic flow and reducing sudden braking which can cause vehicles to bunch up.

Dynamic Lane Management & Hard Shoulder Running

By altering the number of lanes available to traffic can better help accommodate the current traffic volume. Additional lanes can be opened – typically the hard shoulder – to reduce congestion keeping traffic running smoothly.

Active Traffic Management (ATM) Systems

By monitoring traffic conditions using sensors and cameras helps to detect congestion early as well as accidents in real-time.

Overhead Signaling

Overhead gantries equipped with electronic signs can display variable speed limits, lane closures and other important information to drivers. These signs help to guide and encourage drivers to maintain safe distances between vehicles.


By employing these technologies enables smart motorways to keep traffic flow at a smooth steady pace, enhancing safety whilst minimising congestion and bunching up.

Are Smart Motorways Safe to Drive on?

Seeing as smart motorways have been around since 2013 it is to be expected that there will, despite the very best efforts, vehicle accidents and sadly fatalities. With this in mind the current government has cancelled the building of any new smart motorways mostly down to a lack of government finances alongside safety concerns with “all lane running“, where the hard shoulder is completely removed.

How To Drive (Safely) On A Smart Motorway

For drivers, there won’t seem to be much difference between a smart motorway and a regular motorway. However, the most important change is the overhead signs which display warnings and variable speed limits – it’s important you keep an eye on these as you can be caught out speeding or cause an accident if not.

You may notice a red X above a lane, this means the lane is being closed, usually due to a stranded vehicle, it is dangerous and you can be fined for driving in these lanes so you must ensure you move over as soon as you are safely able to do so.

Additionally, you may notice drivers using the hard shoulder as the slow lane – again, unless on an ‘all lanes running’ smart motorway this will be signalled by the overhead signs so it’s important to stay aware.

What To Do If You Break Down On A Smart Motorway

Breaking down on a smart motorway can be a particularly worrying thought for drivers, as there isn’t always a hard shoulder to take refuge on and emergency refuge areas can be up to 1.5 miles apart.

However, the constant monitoring of these roads means you can expect a prompt response from the control centres.

If you do break down, you should:

Get to the refuge area: you should put your hazards on and use your mobile phone (call 0300 123 5000) or look for the free emergency phone that will immediately connect you though to the Highways England control centre who will advise you from there.

If you are unable to do so: if you can’t make it to the refuge area, you should put your hazards on and make your way to the left-hand lane. The operators in the control rooms should then be able to spot you and close the lane you are stranded in.

Highways England recommended that you leave your car (if you can do so safely) by the left-hand side door then wait behind the safety barrier.

Avoid Unexpected Breakdowns With Autocare

Smart motorways are designed to prevent speeding, congestion and accidents, as well being able to divert traffic around obstructions.

To reduce the chances of a vehicle breakdown, before any long journey you should check your tyre pressure, oil levels and brake & screen fluid levels. Regularly servicing your vehicle also significantly reduces the chance of an unexpected breakdown.

If you need to book your vehicle in for a service or have any questions regarding smart motorways, give one of our team a call on 01291 627 137 or get in touch here.


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