What Are Smart Motorways?

UK motorway at night with time lapse lights

If you’ve been out and about on Britain’s roads lately, you may have noticed a developing trend on the motorways. We are of course talking about the expansion of so-called ‘smart motorways‘. This is an age where we rely on smartphones and new technology to carry out many of our basic needs. It makes sense, then, that we start applying such innovation to our roads.

Indeed, the process is already in full swing. Parts of the M1, M4, M6 and M25 are in the process of converting to smart motorways. Plus, there are plans for more (240 miles, no less) updates on the horizon. So, is this a good thing? Read on and decide what you think…

About Smart Motorways

Lanes on motorway at night, with car lights heading towards the horizon

Most of us have experienced smart motorways, but what exactly is it that makes them so ‘smart’? Well, they use what are known as active traffic management techniques to spot hazards and control the movement of vehicles. Smart motorways employ technology to track incidents, measure traffic levels and change speed limits in real time. This means instructions to drivers are often updating in response to developing hazards. By doing this, smart motorways aim to promote a steady flow of traffic.

For example: a camera notices an accident occurring at a certain point on the motorway. In response, speed limits along the preceding stretch of road are changed to 50 mph, reducing congestion around the crash site. Perhaps the hazard ends up blocking one or more lanes. The solution? Open the hard shoulder as an extra lane to allow more cars through the area at a time.  Here we can see how modern technology is really useful when it comes to both road safety and easing the journeys of many drivers.

How Exactly Do They Work?

Emergency refuge area sign on a smart motorway

Smart motorways rely on extensive signage and CCTV coverage to control traffic. Regional traffic control centres are monitoring the data, deciding which changes to make and updating instructions accordingly. Such surveillance is useful because it means authorities are consistently adapting to whatever is happening on the carriageways, while maximising motorway capacity.

The noticeable characteristics of smart motorways is that they have variable speed limits and sometimes implement an ‘all lanes running‘ policy. The latter refers to what we touched upon earlier—the hard shoulder being opened as an extra lane. This rule in particular has been somewhat controversial. Some drivers argue that allowing vehicles to use the hard shoulder is dangerous. If it is open to all drivers, it prevents those in trouble using it as an emergency area.

To combat this issue, smart motorways have emergency refuge areas dotted at least every 1.5 miles along the road. You can recognise them by their large blue and orange signs and orange road surface. They provide telephones so that drivers can call services for help.

However, you can imagine being more than a little nervous if your car starts experiencing trouble just after you’ve passed a refuge area! That’s exactly what happened to one family who were forced to stop on the M6 while all lanes were running. Thankfully, everyone involved escaped with minor injuries, but it must have been a very scary experience. Such cases highlight the shortfalls of the current smart motorway system.

Additionally, as noted in our April 2021 news roundup, SVD technology is coming into force across England’s smart motorway network. This enables stopped vehicles to be detected automatically, and control rooms to be alerted.

Looking to the Future

As smart motorways are still in the early stages of development and rollout, Highways England are able to respond to drivers’ concerns. After lots of complaints that opening the hard shoulder is dangerous, it was recently announced that more emergency refuge areas would be opened on existing smart motorways.

It’s great that criticisms are being acknowledged, but so far the changes being suggested are improvements rather than solutions. For instance, there is still a worry that people will become used to the hard shoulder being an extra lane. You could end up with drivers using it inappropriately, even in situations where it is restricted to emergency use only.

Along with improvements, authorities are introducing penalties to combat people viewing smart motorway instructions as suggestions, rather than the law. If you are on a smart motorway and the speed limit changes from 70mph to 60mph, to continue at 70mph is actually illegal. In addition, if you see a lane with a red ‘X’ above it and decide to use it anyway, police can slap you with a £100 fine. As covered in our March 2019 news roundup, though, this hasn’t stopped some drivers—23% have admitted to flouting this law, potentially putting lives at risk.

Smart Motorways: Yea or Nay?

Learning to drive

simple green tick They promote good traffic flow and ease of navigation.

simple green tick You can follow instructions as your journey progresses, knowing any  developing hazards will be taken into account.

simple green tick Highways England are working on improvements to the current system.

red cross clipart Use of the hard shoulder as a lane has caused crashes and can increase the time it takes for emergency vehicles to reach people.

red cross clipart They don’t reduce traffic or emissions.

The Verdict

Smart motorways make use of the sophistication of modern technology—which is likely to improve the efficiency of Britain’s motorways. Because this style of road is still fairly new, there are a number of changes that need to be made before we hail them as a success. To be fair, transitional periods always involve some kinks that need to be ironed out. The problem is, when it comes to motorways, these kinks can be life-threatening.

Nevertheless, the priorities behind smart motorways are positive for drivers. Less congestion? Great! More lanes to drive in? Thanks! Plus, the extensive use of up-to-date technology is innovative and impressive. Just remember, these motorways are smart—so pay attention to what they tell you to do!

No matter your view on them, Britain’s roads are changing and you need to keep up! If you’re ready to take on smart motorways for yourself, make sure you have a look at all the information and help PassMeFast can provide.

To stay up to date with the latest news and tips, keep checking in with the PassMeFast Blog!

By Isobel Robb

Isobel enjoys the freedom of the open road and loves driving to new places. She's here to offer helpful hints and tips to improve your motoring skills. When not keeping up to date with the latest driving info you can find her discovering new restaurants or exhausting her Netflix subscription.

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Christopher Ley-Wilson

    Use of the emergency lane, under whatever circumstances, will surely lead to added risk due to more traffic. The thought of emergency vehicles being prevented or delayed from reaching an accident site – whether to manage it, extinguish a fire, attend to life saving (or maybe all three) seems nothing short of abhorrent. How about the “KISS” principle (keep it simple ……), namely just reduce speed limits at times of conjestion, strictly (?smartly!!) monitored with eye-watering fines actively collected from offenders? And/or build more motorways – even on top of exisiing ones?

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