Smart motorways: government launches plan to make them safer

  • Smart motorways are becoming increasingly common
  • They allow all-lanes running and variable speed limits
  • ...but they're under pressure now for safety reasons

The government is currently under fire for the safety of all-lanes-running Smart motorways. However, it has responded by saying that it's going to review how they work, make changes and improve their safety record.

According to the BBC, between 2015 and 2018, on average 11 people per year have died on smart motorways in England. The Department for transport has promised that there will be an increase in places for vehicles to stop in an emergency where hard shoulders have been removed.

The changes to Smart motorway running were announced by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps. He said he had been, 'greatly concerned by a number of deaths on smart motorways. The overall evidence shows that in most ways smart motorways are as safe or safer than conventional ones – but not in every way.'

>> What is a smart motorway

>> How to drive on a Smart motorway

>> Where are the smart motorways?

The statistics are quite shocking, but not unsurprising for those who were critical of the introduction of Smart motorways. According to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request sent by the BBC's Panorama to Highways England, on one section of the M25 alone the number of reported near misses proactively reported by Highways England had jumped from 72 in 2014 to 1,485 in 2019. However, none of these incidents recorded on the M25 between junctions 23 and 27 since April 2014 resulted in any injuries.

The Department for Transport has confirmed that there will be more Emergency Refuge Areas (below), with a maximum spacing of one mile apart and, where feasible, every ¾ of a mile apart as a new design standard. This means that there will be 10 more emergency areas added to the M25 smart motorway section.

In addition, the government promises that the technology used to detect stopped vehicles will be improved, emergency areas will be more visible, and there will be signs 'counting down' to the next safe place to stop.

Finally and most importantly, the government will be abolishing Dynamic Hard Shoulder Smart motorways, where the hard shoulder is opened to allow traffic during busy periods after concerns they confuse drivers and cause accidents.

More Emergency Refuge Areas can't come too soon

Smart motorway emergency bay

Eight out of 10 drivers believe Smart motorways have made motorways more dangerous. Edmund King OBE, AA president, said: 'While we support measures to improve motorway capacity, we do not think that safety should be compromised. Breaking down in a live running lane with trucks thundering up behind you is every driver’s worst nightmare. The official advice is to dial 999, which just shows how dangerous the situation can be.

'If drivers can see the next lay-by, they are much more likely to make it to the relative safety of that area even if their car has a puncture or is overheating. If they can’t see the lay-by, they often panic and stop in a live running lane. If more lay-bys are designed at the planning stage it will be less expensive and safer.'

Jim O’Sullivan, Highways England Chief Executive, added: 'Every death in any road accident is tragic, and we are determined to do all we can to make our roads as safe as possible. We will be taking forward the measures the Secretary of State for Transport has set out, and we will be improving further our information to drivers to help them be safer on all of our roads, including our Smart motorway network.'

What is a Smart motorway?

Smart motorways (also known as actively managed motorways) vary the amount of lanes open and speed limit in order to improve road safety and maintain the flow of traffic.

How do they work?

There are three types of Smart motorway. In each instance, electronic signs are positioned at various intervals on the carriageway displaying the variable speed limit (if there is one in place) and other traffic information.

Such signs will often be positioned above each individual lane, attached to an overhead gantry. This enables them to display individual instructions for each lane, such as whether it is open or closed. In the case of the latter, a red X will be shown to denote that the lane is closed.

Beware, driving in a lane with a red X above it is considered an offence, and anyone caught doing so could be fined £100 with three penalty points on the driver’s licence (or the driver can be referred to an awareness course). Smart motorways will often have speed cameras placed at intervals along the carriageway. These will be set to catch drivers exceeding the variable speed limit.

The three different types of smart motorway are as follows:

Controlled motorways
Have variable speed limits and a dedicated hard shoulder lane which is only for use in emergencies. Other lanes can still be closed by way of displaying a red X above.

Dynamic Hard Shoulder motorways
Motorways are self explanatory. The hard shoulder may be used as an extra lane during times of congestion with overhead signs displaying when it’s open to traffic. Generally, if the electronic sign above the hard shoulder is not illuminated with a variable speed limit, the lane is closed unless in an emergency.

All lanes running
Motorways have no dedicated hard shoulder, instead relying on emergency refuge areas positioned at around one-and-a-half-mile intervals. If you break down and are unable to make it to a refuse area, the lane you are in will be shut and assistance will be sent to your location. Once again, the electronic signs will display variable speed limits and information on which lanes are open.

How to drive on a Smart motorway

One major problem is that drivers are still confused about how to use Smart motorways, despite having been introduced in 2015. The Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) says advice about the various signals motorists can expect to see on stretches of the network that make use of all-lane running, overhead gantry signs and emergency refuge areas.

The IAM's survey revealed that 71% of drivers feel less safe on a motorway with no hard shoulder than a motorway with one. Drivers were concerned with the safety of a car and its occupants after breaking down on a motorway with no hard shoulder, and the increase in distances between safety refuges.

Some 40% of the survey's respondents said they were sceptical that new monitoring systems on Smart motorways, such as traffic detectors and CCTV, would protect them in the event of stopping in a running lane. The government's promise to improve this aspect of Smart motorways will help alleviate drivers' fears.

Part of the problem comes from a lack of understanding, as discovered by Transport Focus in its Road User Needs and Experiences report. It concluded: 'While some drivers were aware of smart motorways, some were not. Even those who have driven on smart motorways were not always familiar with the term, nor did they understand clearly how they operated.'

What the overhead signs mean

A red cross without flashing beacons
The hard shoulder is only for use in an emergency or breakdown.

A speed limit inside a red circle
It is absolutely mandatory and may have cameras enforcing it.

A blank signal
Usual motorway rules apply.

A white arrow with flashing beacons
This applies to all lanes and means you should move into the lane which the arrow points to.

A red cross with flashing beacons
You should not continue to use the lane.

A national speed limit sign is shown
The national speed limit, 70mph maximum, applies to all lanes apart from the hard shoulder.

Pay attention to the overhead gantries as they provide information on traffic conditions and lane access for the road ahead.

Where are the smart motorways located?

Smart motorways

We've broken down the types of Smart motorway, and where they're located in our handy list.

All-lane running

M1
J16-J13 (under construction)
J19-J16
J24-J25
J28-J31
J32-J35a
J39-J42 

M3
J2-J4a 

M4
J3-J12 (under construction) 

M5
J4-J6 

M6
J2-J4
J10a-J13
J13-J15 (under construction)
J16-J19 

M20
J3-J5 (under construction)

M23
J8-J10 

M25
J3-J5 (under construction)
J5-J6/7
J23-J27 

M27
J4-J11 (under construction)

M62
J10-J12
J18-J20
J25-J26

Dynamic Hard Shoulder motorways

M1
J10-J13

M4
J19-J20

M5
J15-J17

M6
J4-J10a

M62
J23-J30

Controlled motorways

M1
J6a-J10
J23a-J24
J25-J28
J31-J32

M6
J10a-J11a

M20
J4-J7

M25
J2-J3
J7-J23

M42
J7-J9

M60
J8-J18

M62
J28-J29

Looking for more jargon-busting motoring meanings? Head over to our Parkers Car Glossary page and take a look at our other definitions.