Bradley Jando | Monday 8th February 2021 4:30pm
Did you know that from June this year, Highways England has had the authority to enforce automatic fines and issue three penalty points to any driver caught using closed lanes on newly installed smart motorways? Well, with 20 sections of road over seven separate UK motorways now being classed as smart motorways, on top of the six more currently under construction and a further 18 in the pipeline, it’s vital that all motorists know exactly how smart motorways work and fully understand what you can and cannot do while using them. In this blog, we take a look at what smart motorways are, how they work, and the specific laws and violations that could land you in trouble.
What is a smart motorway?
A smart motorway is a section of a UK motorway that uses newly installed traffic management methods to reduce congestion and increase capacity in particularly busy locations. The idea is that smart motorways ease congestion by allowing cars to drive on the hard shoulder of motorways during the busiest periods of the day, with traffic constantly being managed and monitored through the use of smart cameras and ‘active’ gantry signs, which can instantly vary the speed limit and close lanes at the drop of a hat if required.
In theory, the installation of smart motorways should effectively increase UK motorway capacity by at least a third, and do so at a much lower cost than physically building extra lanes - both financially and environmentally. However, with many motorists confused by the rules surrounding smart motorways, as well as new legislation relating to automatic fines for drivers caught breaking smart motorway rules, their safety and functionality have been placed into question. This makes a sound understanding of how smart motorways work essential for all motorists.
Different types of smart motorway
In the UK, there are three different types of smart motorway: controlled motorways, all lane running schemes, and dynamic hard shoulder running schemes.
Controlled motorways operate in a very similar way to the traditional motorways most drivers will be used to. While variable speed limits are managed and monitored via a regional traffic centre, you are only allowed to use the motorway’s hard shoulder in an emergency. It should be considered a refuge for any broken-down vehicle and a special lane for the emergency services to bypass traffic easily to get to the scene of an accident.
All lane running schemes are stretches of the road in which the hard shoulder operates as a normal lane for the vast majority of the time. However, it's worth noting that the hard shoulder can still be closed at any time if there is an incident ahead. The local traffic centre will display a red ‘X’ on gantry signs above the hard shoulder if this is the case, so it’s vital to always stay vigilant and watch out for any gantry sign changes. In these stretches, emergency refuge areas (ERAs) are positioned at regular intervals for drivers to use instead of the hard shoulder in an emergency.
Finally, dynamic hard shoulder running schemes are sections of smart motorway in which motorists can only use the hard shoulder as an additional lane during peak times of the day in order to ease congestion. Regional traffic centres simply display a speed limit on the gantry above the hard shoulder to indicate when it is in use, with a red ‘X’ appearing when it’s not in use. ERAs are positioned at intervals of no more than 1.5 miles on these stretches for use in the event of a breakdown. It’s important to remember, ERAs on smart motorways are only to be used in emergencies and once you’ve pulled into one, you can only pull back onto the motorway with permission from the authorities.
Smart motorway penalties and fines
As is the case with all UK roads and highways, ignoring the rules of the road when using smart motorways could land you in hot water. However, unlike other roads, all smart motorways are managed and monitored through the use of traffic cameras, meaning if you do break the law while driving on a smart motorway, it is much less likely to go unnoticed.
If you break the variable speed limit, for example - which will be set by a regional traffic centre and should be displayed on gantry signs above specific lanes - you can be handed a hefty speeding fine of up to £2,500 (based on your income) and face up to six penalty points on your licence. If you are caught travelling over 90mph on a smart motorway, you could even run the risk of being disqualified from driving all together. Remember, if there is no speed limit visible on the gantry, the national speed limit is in place for that stretch of the motorway.
Aside from speed limit violations, you can also be fined for ignoring the red ‘X’ signs above closed lanes, whether this is deliberate or not. Prior to June 2019, fines for using closed lanes could only be issued manually by police officers out on the road. However, Home Office legislation now authorises Highways England to use traffic cameras on smart motorways to automatically issue a fixed penalty notice to any motorist caught ignoring red ‘X’ signs on the motorway gantries. Any driver snapped incorrectly using a closed lane on a smart motorway can expect three penalty points on their driving licence and a fine of up to £100.
Staying safe and avoiding fines when using smart motorways is simple, it’s just a case of staying vigilant while behind the wheel and understanding how these new highways work. Just remember - never drive under a red ‘X’ sign, always keep to the speed limits displayed on the gantries, only use the hard shoulder if authorised by the regional traffic centre, and only make use of emergency refuge areas in the event of a breakdown. Stick to these simple tips and you’ll not only stay safe on smart motorways, but you should also avoid any surprise penalty fines.
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