Smart Motorways: What They Are & How To Use Them

by Brady Myles - 4 Min Read

From next year, you’ll be allowed to head out on to motorways with your driving instructor and for many of us, there’s a good chance that you’ll end up driving on a ‘smart’ motorway.

But what is one exactly? It refers to a selection of UK motorways that boast congestion-busting features that if ignored, could prove to be life-threatening. But there is a big problem – even seasoned drivers are struggling to comprehend exactly how to use them according to independent watchdog Transport Focus.

To help you understand the all-important rules of smart motorways, this FAQ will prepare you for your maiden journey (and it might be worthwhile forwarding this blog on to your parents/guardians to make sure they know what they’re doing as well!):

“So what is a smart motorway?”

According to Highways England, the government body charged with running them, they use “technology to actively manage the flow of traffic”. In real terms, this means smart motorways are monitored by control centres who can change speed limits (known as ‘variable speed limits’) and lane signs on the overhead gantries in an instant if and when congestion is building up.

Importantly, there are three types of smart motorway – controlled motorways; these have three or more lanes and variable speed limits but the hard shoulder is only used in an emergency.

The next is called all lane running motorways, where drivers can use the hard shoulder as an actual lane unless otherwise directed by the overhead gantry signs. You can find examples on the M25 between junctions 23 and 27, the M1 between junctions 28 and 31, and the M6 between junctions 10a and 13.

The final type are known as dynamic hard shoulder running motorways where the hard shoulder can be used to help ease congestion but only if directed to by the overhead gantry signs. You can find dynamic hard shoulder running schemes on sections of the M1, M6, M4, M5 and M42.

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From the M1, M42 and M6 to the M4 and M5, smart motorways are being rolled out across Britain – so make sure you know their rules to stay safe and legal when driving on them.

“But I thought hard shoulders should only ever be used in an emergency?”

Yes, you’re right but in this era of heavy traffic, queues and other assorted motorway misery, the bright sparks at Highways England realised that the hard shoulder could double up as another lane to help ease the tedium. And according to road experts, it has helped ease congestion, lower journey times and make motorway driving more ‘pleasant’.

“So I can use the hard shoulder all the time, any time?”

Well, not quite – if there is a red ‘X’ displayed in the overhead gantry above the hard shoulder, then you can’t use it. On all-lane running schemes, these will appear if there has been an incident up ahead or if the emergency services need to use the lane exclusively.

If you see the red ‘X’, move back into the main running lanes as soon as you safely can (or risk being fined). 
As for dynamic hard shoulder running schemes, don’t use the hard shoulder if the sign above it is blank or displaying the red ‘X’.

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“Okay – but what do I do if I breakdown or have an accident? There’s no hard shoulder anymore!”

Highways England has this covered too. It’s created Emergency Refuge Areas (ERA) regularly along smart motorways. You can spot them by looking out for blue signs with an orange SOS symbol on them.

Now read the following closely because 52% of UK motorists don’t understand how to actually use an ERA and one in four don’t even know they exist. First, you should pull in and park in the marked designated area before putting your hazard warning lights on.

Wherever possible, step out of the car on the passenger side and step over the crash barrier. You can then use the SOS telephone to contact Highways England. It will assess your problem and advise you on what to do next.

Once your issue has been resolved (and if you are able to), you can head back out on to the motorway – but only after you have called Highways England again. Instead of you struggling to get back out on to the motorway and risk being hit by a fast-moving vehicle, the agency will slow down traffic coming from behind by displaying a red ‘X’ on the nearside running lane to ensure you can pull out safely.

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Having car trouble? Then head to an Emergency Refuge Area to ensure you are safe before contacting Highways England for help.

“That all sounds fine in theory – but what if I can’t make it to an ERA?”

Official advice is to move over to the verge if it’s safe to do so before putting on your hazard lights. If you can, get out of the car on the passenger side (to ensure you’re not hit by, say, a lorry) and step over the safety barrier.

If your car crisis gives you no time to move to the verge, then put your hazards on and call 999 immediately. Highways England will then switch on the red ‘X’ above the lane you’re stuck in to ensure that traffic behind you doesn’t use it.

And that’s it – stick to the rules and you’ll have no problem navigating smart motorways. And after reading this, you can be rest assured that you now know more about them than most UK drivers.

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All images © Highways England

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