Smart motorways – are they really smart?

The transport secretary Grant Shapps announced this week that Smart motorways are to be reviewed over safety concerns. He indicated that the findings of the review would be delivered within “a matter of weeks” – highlighting the urgency of the issue. Addressing MPs he said: “I’ve heard those concerns raised today and previously and I have asked my department to carry out at pace an evidence stocktake to gather the facts quickly and make recommendations.
“I will ensure that it’s the department that is making decisions on this because I think some of the statistics have been difficult to understand,” before adding: “we know people are dying on smart motorways”.

What are Smart motorways

A Smart motorway is a section of motorway designed to improve traffic flow by increasing capacity and varying speed limits. They are found in areas most affected by large volumes of traffic and they use a range of methods to operate, explained below. Smart motorways were originally designed to be an effective solution to traffic problems that didn’t require building of complete new lanes. In some Smart motorway systems, the hard shoulder is used as an extra lane. Sometimes this is a permanent design, in others only at peak times.

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Types of Smart motorway


A controlled motorway is a regular motorway, with the addition of variable speed limit signs. These signs are fitted to overhead gantries and in peak times will display reduced speed limits. The aim of this system is to slow the traffic to avoid an effect known as the ‘Phantom Traffic Jam’.

Speed limits are enforced by cameras mounted above the lanes. If no limit is displayed overhead, then the national limit applies. Controlled motorways retain the hard shoulder for emergency use only.

Dynamic hard shoulder

In this type of Smart motorway system, the hard shoulder is used as a running lane during peak times to increase traffic flow. As the hard shoulder is still separated from the other lanes by a solid white line, overhead gantries are used to display information to show whether the lane is in use or not. If the hard shoulder is to be used as a running lane, a speed limit will be displayed. If the hard shoulder is closed and to be used only in emergencies, a red ‘X’ will be displayed above. This is also displayed above any lane where a vehicle has broken down and it is vital that you do not continue to drive in any lane marked with a red ‘X’.

All lanes running

Of all the Smart motorway systems, the ‘all lanes running’ system is the most contentious. Motorways that use this system have had their hard shoulders converted into permanent traffic lanes. They use the same overhead gantry system to display variable speed limits and lane closures, as used by the controlled and dynamic hard shoulder systems.

The safety of Smart motorways

Emergency Refuge Areas

Emergency refuge areas (ERAs) are provided to allow places for vehicles to stop in an emergency, with a telephone to call for assistance. However, with an average spacing of 1.5 miles this system is flawed. A motorist experiencing a vehicle breakdown is only able to make use of an ERA if they are fortunate enough to be near enough to one.

era smart motorway

Using an ERA

Blue signs displaying an orange telephone symbol indicate Emergency Refuge Areas. Road markings indicate where to position your vehicle within the ERA. You should then exit the vehicle and stand safely behind the barrier or wall. The telephone can be used to call for assistance. You must only use ERAs in emergencies.

If you can’t make it to an ERA

  • Switch on your hazard lights immediately.
  • Move onto the verge if there is one.
  • If not, stop in lane 1.
  • Leave your vehicle immediately, via the passenger side if possible.
  • If you were unable to stop in lane 1, remain in your vehicle and call the emergency services from your mobile phone.


Incidents are dealt with quickly via use of cameras monitored around the clock. When operatives observe breakdowns or accidents, they can immediately change the gantry signs to close lanes or adjust speed limits. The problem with this system is that these measures are not instant. It can take a short time for an incident to noticed, and if it has occurred just after an overhead sign it is possible that approaching drivers will have no warning of the incident ahead.

Smart motorway driving tips

  • Observe variable speed limits
  • Never drive in a lane marked with a red ‘X’
  • Follow the above instructions for using an Emergency Refuge Area
  • Use your hazard lights in an emergency

More reading at GOV.uk

The future of Smart motorways

It is currently unclear what the future holds for Smart motorways. Once billed as the ideal solution to Britain’s motorway traffic problems, a series of fatalities have caused a large proportion of motorists to start asking questions about their safety.

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