smart motorways

The term ‘smart motorway’ was first coined in the mid-2000s, and refers to sections of motorway that use modern technology to improve traffic flow and reduce the risk of accidents. With over 38 million licensed vehicles in the UK, experts are constantly looking for ways to make our roads safer and more efficient – and the latest step is the proliferation of smart motorways across the country.

Types of Smart Motorway in the UK

There are four variations of traffic management used on the UK’s motorways, each designed to aid traffic congestion and improve road safety:

Controlled Motorway

Controlled motorways contain at least three lanes along with a hard shoulder for emergency use only, and employ variable speed limits to manage traffic flow. Electronic signs are used to inform road users of changing speed limits, while speeds are monitored using a combination of sensors and cameras.

This system is in use on the following roads:

M1 (junctions 6a-10, 23a-24, 25-28 and 31-32)
M4 (junctions 24-28)
M6 (junctions 10a-11a)
M9 (junctions 1-1a southbound)
M20 (junctions 4-5 eastbound and 5-7)
M25 (junctions 2-3, 6-7 anti-clockwise, 7-23 and 27-30)
M40 (junctions 16-M42 and 3a northbound)
M42 (junctions 7-9)
M60 (junctions 8-18)
M62 (junctions 28-29)
M90: M9 (junctions 1a-2 and 2-3 southbound)

Dynamic Hard Shoulder

These motorways use the same variable speed limits as controlled motorways, but can also open the hard shoulder as a running lane during periods of heavy traffic, in order to ease congestion. Electronic signs overhead are used to confirm whether the hard shoulder is open as a running lane, as well as displaying changes in the speed limit.

This system is in use on the following roads:

M1 (junctions 10-13)
M4 (junctions 19-20)
M5 (junctions 15-17)
M6 (junctions 4-10a)
M42 (junctions 3a-7)
M62 (junctions 26-28 and 29-30 eastbound)

All-Lane Running

All-lane running systems use the hard shoulder as a running lane on a permanent basis in order to ease congestion, with the hard shoulder only closed when an accident occurs that requires a quick response from the emergency services. Variable speed limits are also in use on these motorways.

This system is in use on the following roads:

M1 (junctions 16-19, 24-25, 28-31, 32-35a and 39-42)
M3 (junctions 2-4a)
M5 (junctions 4a-6)
M6 (junctions 11a-13 and 16-19)
M25 (junctions 5-6, 6-7 clockwise and 23-27)
M62 (junctions 18-20, 25-26 and 29-30 westbound)

Through-Junction Running

One less common smart motorway technique designed to improve traffic flow is through-junction running, which involves the use of the hard shoulder as a permanent running lane through junctions and around the slip roads, increasing motorway capacity during periods, preventing tailbacks.

This system is in use on the following roads:

M1 (junction 11, 11a and 12)
M6 (junction 10)
M27 (junctions 4-11)

What signals will you see on Smart Motorways?

When driving on a smart motorway, there are numerous control signs conveying any necessary information to ensure drivers’ safety.
Overhead control signals are shown at frequent intervals on gantries that span all lanes of the motorway, displaying information on changes to the speed limit, road closures, delays, appropriate use of the hard shoulder and the correct lanes for turning off at junctions. These gantries may also feature speed cameras, which act as a deterrent to ensure drivers stick to the speed limit.

Roadside control signals are more commonly found on motorways in rural areas with fewer junctions, and are placed at the side of the road rather than overhead. As with overhead control signals, they can show a wide range of messages designed to keep road users safe – however, roadside control signals are not usually electronic, and so these messages cannot be edited from a control centre, instead showing fixed messages which can only be amended physically.

Safety concerns

Although there are clear benefits to smart motorways, many have expressed safety concerns. Over the past five years, there have been 38 deaths on smart motorways, with critics pointing out that the lack of a hard shoulder makes them incredibly dangerous if you break down – with nowhere safe to pull over, vehicles can be trapped in fast-moving traffic.

An investigation by BBC Panorama revealed that near-misses on the smart motorway section of the M25 went from 72 to 1,485 in five years following its introduction – a 2000% increase – while a poll conducted by the AA found that only 9% of drivers felt relaxed or safe on smart motorways.
The government has recognised these concerns and has put a planned national rollout on hold, although existing sections of smart motorway will not be affected.

Emergency refuge areas and what to do if you break down

With hard shoulders often used as running lanes, the authorities have set up designated Emergency Refuge Areas that provide a safe place to stop if you break down on a smart motorway.

ERAs are clearly marked with blue signs featuring an orange telephone icon, and offer a place to park, along with a crash barrier to protect road users from oncoming traffic and an SOS telephone that connects you directly to Highways England, who will send a recovery driver (or emergency vehicle if required) to your location.

At present, these appear approximately every 1.5 miles on all-lane running motorways, and Highways England have confirmed plans to increase their regularity in the coming years.

Smart Motorways course for HGV drivers

Drivers of Heavy Goods Vehicles have expressed particular concerns about the safety of smart motorways, with lorry rescue services pointing out the dangers of carrying out emergency repairs without a place to park safely.

With that in mind, Highways England have set up a course in conjunction with the Freight Transport Association, which provides tailored safety training to HGV drivers who regularly use smart motorways. The one-day course covers everything from control signals to best driving practice, and can be integrated with the standard Driver CPC course that all professional drivers must complete.

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