What is a smart motorway? Speed cameras, safety and hard shoulder use explained

Smart motorways are meant to be a cost-effective way of increasing road capacity, but they’ve made headlines for the wrong reasons

Smart motorways use variable speed limits to control traffic flow and, in some cases, instruct drivers to use the hard shoulder as a live running lane. These new types of road are controversial, though, with various concerns having been raised over how safe they are.

The criticism of smart motorways is mainly aimed at what happens when a vehicle breaks down on an all-lane running (ALR) section of motorway, where every single lane including the hard shoulder is being used by live traffic.

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The majority of smart motorways do not have automatic Stopped Vehicle Detection (SVD) technology in place. Consequently, Highways England operators take an average of 17 minutes to spot a broken-down vehicle using CCTV, whereas SVD would be 16 minutes quicker.

When a broken-down vehicle is spotted, it then takes operators a further three minutes to change the signal for the obstructed lane to a ‘red X’. Even once this is done, though, many drivers have a tendency to ignore these red X signals, with Highways England issuing 180,000 warning letters for the offence between 2017 and summer 2018.

Furthermore, recovery firms such as the AA, RAC and Green Flag refuse to recover vehicles from live lanes. Unless the driver is able to get their broken-down car to an emergency refuge area – which are spaced up to two miles apart from one another along smart motorways – they will have to wait for either the police or Highways England to physically shut the lane before their breakdown company will recover the vehicle.

There have been 38 deaths on smart motorways in the last five years, with one section of the M25 seeing a 20-fold increase in the number of ‘near-miss’ incidents since being converted to ALR.

Towards the end of 2019, the Government commissioned a review into smart motorways, the findings of which are expected to be published soon.

Smart motorways: the background

The first smart motorway with ALR was opened in 2006 on the M42 in the West Midlands, but now there are smart sections found in many busy parts of the country. Sections of the M25 around London, M6 in Birmingham, M62 in Manchester, the M1 from London to Luton and further north all have ALR available.

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Despite the controversy, Highways England – which runs the UK’s Strategic Road Network of motorways and major dual carriageways – continues to argue that smart motorways are safer and more efficient than their conventional counterparts.

Works to convert roads such as the M27 into smart motorways are still underway. Although the results of the Government’s review have the potential to alter how such works proceed, the investigation is being conducted internally by the Department for Transport, which owns Highways England.

Smart motorway safety tips

Below are some tips on what to do if you have a breakdown on a smart motorway.

• Use an emergency refuge area if you are able to reach one safely. These are painted yellow and marked with blue signs featuring an orange SOS telephone symbol on them.

• If you can leave your vehicle safely, contact Highways England via the roadside SOS telephone provided in all emergency refuge areas. A traffic officer will either be sent to help, or the motorway signs will be set to temporarily close lanes or reduce speed limits whilst you remain in the emergency refuge area.

• A further call to Highways England is recommended when you plan to re-join the motorway so further restrictions can be put in place to make this as safe as possible.

• If you cannot get to an emergency refuge area but the vehicle can be driven, move it to the hard shoulder (where provided) or as close to the nearside verge or other nearside boundary as possible. In an emergency, Highways England advises to call 999.

• In all cases, switch on your hazard warning lights, exit the car through the nearside door and stand on the far side of the safety barrier away from moving traffic.

Have you ever broken down on a smart motorway? Tell us what happened in the comments below…