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Staying safe on a smart motorway

The world of motoring is constantly evolving, and drivers must evolve with it. This means taking on board new technologies and being alert to road changes.

The main goal behind almost all advancements – whether it's self-driving cars or black box car insurance – is to make the motoring experience easier and reduce the amount of risk that drivers experience on the roads.

In the UK, "smart motorways" have been introduced to help the flow of traffic and keep motorists safe during periods of congestion., But if drivers aren't sure about how to use them properly, they could have the opposite effect.

How do smart motorways work?

A smart motorway uses active traffic management techniques (such as allowing vehicles to use the hard shoulder during busy times) to help traffic flow, prevent accidents, and reduce carbon emissions.

But not all drivers have found the system effective and one feature causing controversy is the use of variable speed limits – where the speed limit for a particular stretch of motorway is displayed to drivers via overhead gantries with a signboard over each lane.

The use of variable speed limits means the legal limit changes to reflect the conditions of the motorway. So, it's reduced whenever the standard limit of 70mph is considered too fast, such as during rush hour and in bad weather. Under this system there can be significant variation in the speed limit along one stretch of road – at the extreme end of the scale this could see a drop from 70mph to 20mph.

Variable speed limits mean smart motorways must also have variable speed cameras to enforce these temporary limits, and it appears many drivers have been caught out.

According to research by, a total of 210,538 UK motorists have been caught speeding by the cameras, paying a total of £526 million in fines since the first variable speed cameras were installed on motorways in 2013. The research also showed that 40 per cent of drivers think variable speed cameras cause drivers to brake more suddenly, and 28 per cent said drivers are not given enough notice before the change in speed limit.

Where are the smart motorways and how do I use them safely?

Current operational sections of smart motorway can be found between certain junctions of the M1, M3, M4, M5, M6, M20, M25, M26. M42, M60, and M62. However, Highways England are committing more than £11bn of funding to create around 400 miles of extra road capacity by 2020 through the creation of a "spine" of smart motorways and other road upgrades, so this list is bound to change.

Here are some tips for staying safe and legal when driving on them.

  • Variable speed limits:  Braking hard to adjust to an altered speed limit could cause an accident. To avoid this, you must stay alert and be prepared to change your speed according to the notices on overhead gantries. Amanda Stretton, motoring editor for, highlights the need for drivers to research their route before setting off and "take note of any areas where there may be a dramatic drop in speed". The distance between cars is a crucial factor on smart motorways where the speed limit can fluctuate quickly. Key message – keep your distance, stay alert.
  • Know what each sign means:  You must be clear about which lanes you can and can't drive in. Any lane that does not show a speed limit on the overhead gantry and is instead marked with a red "X" means that the lane is closed and you're unable to drive in it. Key message – know what the symbols in the overhead signs mean and what actions you must take.
  • Know how to use the hard shoulder:  The function of the hard shoulder varies depending on the type of smart motorway you're travelling on. Some smart motorways use hard shoulders as normal and not as a running lane for traffic (controlled motorways), some will only use the hard shoulder as a running lane during busy times (dynamic hard shoulder), and others may have it opened for traffic permanently (all lane running). On motorways with dynamic hard shoulder schemes, a sign on the overhead gantry will let you know if it's open to traffic. Only drive on the hard shoulder if directed to do so. Key message – be aware of the correct procedure for using the hard shoulder as a running lane.

Smart Motorway

  • Know your road markings: Broken white lines indicate a normal running lane, while a solid white lane indicates a hard shoulder. Regardless of the type of smart motorway you're driving on, it's still possible for the hard shoulder to be completely closed off if an accident occurs. Consult the gantry signs to be sure. Key message – stay aware of road usage while driving and be prepared to use the lanes differently to normal driving conditions.
  • Emergency Refuge Area: These are the areas set aside for use when the hard shoulder is being used as a running lane. However, recent figures from the RAC showed that 52 per cent of drivers do not know what an ERA is. ERAs are marked with a blue sign with an orange SOS telephone symbol on them. They've been built roughly 1.6 miles apart across smart motorways, and in the event of an emergency you should try to reach one in order to pull over safely. Once you have come to a safe stop you should exit your vehicle via a door furthest away from the stream of traffic (typically on the left hand side) and contact Highways England using the designated phone in the ERA. If you're unable to reach an ERA, you can move to the hard shoulder (if it's not operating as a running lane) or as close to the verge as possible. Always put your hazard lights on if you break down. Key message – If you break down look for the ERA sign and pull in there if safe to do so.


What are your experiences of driving on smart motorways? Do you have any tips on how to stay safe? Tweet us your thoughts @Coverbox using #smartmotorways.

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