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Our guide to smart motorways

Kwik Fit | Wednesday 4th September 2019 4:30pm

Cars on smart motorway

The number of smart motorways is increasing.  With Highways England aiming to reduce congestion through the use of these motorways, the number of smart motorways in the UK is set to increase further. The first smart motorway opened to traffic was the M42 in 2006. Statistics from Highways England show that journey reliability has improved by 22% on this road and the number of accidents involving severe injuries has reduced. However, smart motorways have hit the news recently as confusion and safety concerns have emerged. Many drivers are still unsure of the rules surrounding smart motorways which can lead to avoidable accidents occurring. Our research has shown that 56% of motorists avoid driving on the hard shoulder of smart motorways due to confusion over when it can be used as an active traffic lane. In this blog, we highlight our top tips for driving on smart motorways.

What is a smart motorway?

A smart motorway is a stretch of motorway that uses various methods, such as using the hard shoulder as an active traffic lane and variable speed limits, to ease congestion and maximise motorway capacity. There are three main types of smart motorway schemes currently operating in the UK. These are all lane running schemes, controlled motorways and dynamic hard shoulder schemes.

All lane running

All lane running smart motorways permanently use the hard shoulder as an active traffic lane to ease congestion. The hard shoulder would only be closed to traffic if an incident has occurred which requires emergency vehicles to have exclusive access to the hard shoulder. If this happens, a sign displaying a red X will be visible above the lane and you should exit that lane as soon as it is safe to do so. It is dangerous to remain in this lane as you will be restricting the access of emergency vehicles and increasing your chances of being involved in an accident.

These sections of smart motorway also operate using variable speed limits. If the speed limit on a stretch of these motorways differs from the national speed limit, there will be a sign to indicate the speed limit on that stretch of road. Similarly, if the speed limits change, new signs will be visible which show what the speed limit has changed to. These speed limits are monitored by speed cameras with penalties enforceable by the police. If you are required to change your speed, make sure that you do so in a safe and gradual way. Highways England has confirmed that these speed cameras accommodate for drivers reducing their speed in a sensible way. However, it is still crucial that you remain alert so that you can adapt to these changes and avoid penalties or fines. These sections of motorway have emergency refuge areas at the side to be used instead of the hard shoulder for use during breakdowns or accidents.

Controlled motorways

These motorways have lanes with variable speed limits but the hard shoulder is not used as an active traffic lane as it is with all lane running motorways. On these motorways, the hard shoulder must only be used in an emergency. When driving on controlled motorways, make sure that you pay attention to speed limit signs as the speed limit will vary and differ from the national seed limit. If no speed limit signs are visible, then the national speed limit still applies.

Dynamic hard shoulder running

These schemes allow the hard shoulder to be used as an active traffic lane at particularly busy times. If you’re unsure of which area of the motorway is the hard shoulder, it is indicated by a solid white separating it from the normal motorway lanes. A sign will indicate whether the hard shoulder is open as a normal lane or not. The hard shoulder is not open for normal traffic if the signs over it are blank or show a red X. You could receive a fixed penalty of up to £100 and 3 points for driving on the hard shoulder when it is marked with a red X. Dynamic hard shoulder smart motorways also operate with variable speed limits so it is important to look out for signs making drivers aware of speed limit changes

Smart motorway technology

Smart motorways use technology to monitor traffic levels, decide when speed limits should be changed and monitor accidents which may require lane closures. Control centres are responsible for monitoring traffic conditions and changing the speed limit if necessary.

The aim of this is to reduce congestion and accidents on the motorway. In the future, technology is being developed using fibre optic cables and 5G broadband to enable smart motorways to make the most of live traffic updates. These will also be used to alert drivers to potential hazards. The potential to use drones to aid with locating accidents and congestion is also an area of future development in the operation of smart motorways.

Tips for driving on smart motorways

Driving on smart motorways is in some respects similar to driving on regular motorways. However, there are extra alerts to be mindful of on smart motorways. It is important to remember never to drive in a lane marked by a red X and keep within the variable speed limits. Look out for solid white lines marking the hard shoulder which shouldn’t be driven in unless indicated otherwise.

The standard motorway procedures for suffering from a breakdown still apply on smart motorways. If you experience any issues with your vehicle, either exit the motorway or pull up in an emergency refuge area if the hard shoulder is being used an active lane. These areas are indicated by blue signs with an orange telephone. If you are able to, contact the Highways Agency using the emergency telephone provided at the refuge points. Always make sure that you put your hazard warning lights on to warn other drivers.

Smart motorways can be tricky to get your head round initially so it is important to familiarise yourself with the rules applicable to smart motorways and the signs that you might encounter while driving on them. Refreshing your knowledge of these will not only keep yourself safe on the road but also help prevent accidents happening to other road users.

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