Smart Motorways – what are they and how are they different?

If you’re a frequent driver on the highways throughout the UK, it’s fair to say you might have driven on a smart motorway without realising. Smart motorways are still relatively new to our roads, but here to stay, so it’s important that motorists know how to use them.


What is a smart motorway?

A smart motorway is a section of motorway that is controlled by a traffic management system that works to increase capacity and reduce congestion. This includes using the hard shoulder as a running lane or using variable speed limits to control the flow of traffic.

What different types of smart motorways are there?

There are 3 different types of smart motorways:

  • all lane running schemes

  • controlled motorway

  • dynamic hard shoulder running schemes

In all types, the variable speed limit is displayed above each lane on the gantry and is controlled through the traffic management system and can change depending on the flow of traffic. Many drivers have expressed their concerns over the possibility of the sudden change in speed, but Highways England have assured that there is a slight lag between when the speed changes and when the traffic cameras enforce that speed.

Are the speeding rules different?

The same rules apply on smart motorways as they do any other motorway in the UK but with more cameras and variable speed limits, motorists are more likely to be caught speeding.

It’s important to note that even when a variable speed isn’t in place, the speed cameras will still catch you travelling over the national speed limit. If no speed limit is displayed, then the national speed limit applies.

If you are caught speeding, you will be subject to speeding fine, which can be up to £2,500 – so stay observant and stay within speed limits at all times.

Mandatory red x

As with all motorways, the ‘red x’ displayed above a lane is used when that lane is closed due to an incident or lane closure. Ignoring the ‘red x’ can be very dangerous and it’s imperative that all drivers exit the lane as soon as possible. At the moment manual enforcement of ‘red x’ signs are in place but will soon be replaced with camera enforcement.

What happens if I break down?

  • If possible, use an Emergency Refuge Area. These are marked with blue signs and an orange SOS telephone symbol on them. The different types of smart motorways have different ERA spacing but you shouldn’t be any further than 1.5 miles from one.

  • If you can’t make it to an ERA, try to move on to the verge if there is no safety barrier and it’s safe to do so.

  • Switch your hazard warning lights on.

  • If you can leave your car safely, use the roadside emergency telephone provided. If you can’t get out safely, stay in the vehicle with your seatbelt on and call 999.

Quick tips for driving on smart motorways

  • Never drive in a lane closed by a red “X”.

  • Keep to the speed limit shown on the gantries.

  • A solid white line indicates the hard shoulder – don’t drive in it unless directed.

  • A broken white line indicates a normal running lane.

  • If your vehicle experiences difficulties, e.g. warning light, exit the smart motorway immediately if possible.

  • Use the refuge areas for emergencies if there’s no hard shoulder.

  • Put your hazard lights on if you break down.

+ More