What are smart motorways?

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Smart motorways now cover more than 400 miles (640km) of England, but drivers still question how to use them and whether they’re the safer choice

smart motorway

Smart motorways, known previously as managed motorways, have existed in the UK since 2006 when the M42 in the West Midlands became a controlled motorway.

Today, there’s more than 400 miles of smart motorway in England and Highways England say there’ll be an extra 300 miles by 2025. The total should equal 4,000 miles when the project’s complete. 

How do smart motorways work?

Technology, controlled from regional centres, monitors and manages the flow of traffic on smart motorways. When signs of congestion show, the hard shoulder’s opened as an extra lane and variable speed limits can be introduced to help keep traffic flowing smoothly. 

There are three types of smart motorway:

  • Dynamic hard shoulder: where the hard shoulder’s temporarily opened up to traffic
  • All lane running (ALR): where the full width of the road is usable with emergency refuge areas alongside
  • Controlled: three or more lanes, a hard shoulder and variable speed limits

At the time of writing (March 2020), the current smart motorways are:

  • M1: J16 to 19, J23a to 25, J28 to 31, J32 to 35a, J39 to 42
  • M3: J2 to 4a
  • M5: J4a to 6, J15 to 17
  • M6: J10a to 13, J16 to 19
  • M25: J5 to 7, J23 to 27
  • M62: J25 to 26

What are the benefits of smart motorways?

Highways England say the M42 smart motorway shows a 22% improvement in journey reliability and personal injury accidents have reduced by more than half. 

There’s also an environmental advantage of a vehicle travelling at a constant speed compared to one which is in stop-start traffic and is accelerating and braking inconsistently. 

While the increased capacity may have increased air and noise pollution in the smart motorway areas, “evidence from existing smart motorway schemes suggests no significant increase in noise and air pollution. This could be partially due to the reduction in speed and smoother flow of traffic resulting in lower emissions”.

Safety concerns over smart motorways

Despite Highways England’s claims of reducing personal injury numbers, the transport secretary, Grant Shapps, put a hold on any further roll out of smart motorways while a review of safety concerns is carried out. 

In January 2020, investigative work by BBC’s Panorama revealed a big rise in near-misses; there were 20 times more near-misses on the M25 ring road in London after ‘smart running’ was introduced.  The death toll on smart motorways, over the last five years, is 38.

Work to convert a 6.5 mile stretch of the M20 into a smart motorway between West Malling and Aylesford was due to finish this month (March 2020) after two years of roadworks.

Workers will also down tools at several other major schemes that were due to finish this year including stretches of:

  • M23 near Gatwick Airport 
  • M20 Kent M62 Greater Manchester
  • M6 near Coventry

Breaking down on a smart motorway

Concerns have also been raised around motorists breaking down on active lanes. An AA Freedom of Information request to Highways England revealed motorway lanes were closed for 945 hours (Aug 2017 – Oct 2019) due to vehicle breakdowns

Over the same period, Highways England also reported:

  • A total of 2,227 breakdowns on stretches of all-running lanes
  • 318 hours of delays thanks to 271 traffic collisions 
  • Obstructions, infrastructure defects and fires all contributed to a total of 2,802 incidents closing lanes for a total of 60 days

Highways England offers the following advice if you find yourself broken down on a smart motorway:

  • Pull into one of the Emergency Refuge Areas (ERA), located at regular intervals (look out for the blue signs with an orange SOS phone symbol)
  • If you can’t pull into an ERA, try to pull in as close to the nearside boundary/verge as possible. Consider if it’s safe to leave your vehicle by the left-hand doors and wait behind the crash barrier. Don’t put yourself at risk and if you feel unsafe call 999
  • Use your hazard warning lights and leave your sidelights on if it’s dark or visibility is poor
  • Wear a hi-vis jacket or vest if you have one 
  • You must use the emergency telephone within the ERA to speak to the Regional Traffic Control Centre; they’ll send someone to help you
  • Once the Regional Traffic Control Centre’s aware of your situation, they’ll be able to close lanes and send police or traffic officers top help you
  • If your car’s stuck in a live lane, call 999 for emergency help, then contact your breakdown provider. Stay in your car, keep your seat belt on and switch on your hazard warning lights and sidelights

Quick tips for driving on a smart motorway

Highways England offers the following advice for smart motorway driving:

  • Never drive in a lane closed by a Red X
  • Keep to the speed limits shown on the signs
  • Hard shoulders are always identified by a solid white line - if there’s no speed limit or a red X is displayed above it, don’t use it except in an emergency
  • A broken white line indicates a normal running lane
  • If the hard shoulder’s being used as an extra lane, use the designated Emergency Refuge Areas for emergencies
  • If your vehicle experiences difficulties exit the motorway immediately, if safe to do so.

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