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What is a Smart Motorway?

Smart motorways in the UK are specific segments of the motorway network that use various technologies during peak periods to actively control traffic flow, with the aim to minimize congestion. When there are signs of congestion, smart motorways, thanks to their technology, will open the hard shoulder as an additional lane, whilst variable speed limits will be implemented to ensure a smooth traffic flow.

Not all smart motorways are the same though, there are different types of systems in place which we are going to go through below.

Types of smart motorways

All lane running

These types of motorway segments don’t have a hard shoulder; this lane has in fact been permanently converted in these motorways to a live lane in order to avoid congestion. In the eventuality that you break down on this type of motorway, there are emergency laybays at regular intervals, which serve the purpose of hard shoulder.

Smart motorways in the UK

Dynamic hard shoulder

These types of motorway segments do have a hard shoulder, but this, depending on traffic conditions, can be turned into a live traffic lane if sensors perceive the traffic to be heavy. The lane is by default a hard shoulder, and as such, shouldn’t be driven in, unless there are indicators that it has, in fact, been turned into a live lane.

Dynamic hard shoulders in UK motorways

Controlled Motorway

These types of motorway segments have a hard shoulder, but also feature variable speed limits which are implemented and amended depending on traffic conditions.

Controlled motorways in the UK

How should I drive on a smart motorway?

The fundamental principles of driving on a smart motorway are the same of driving on a regular one. However, smart motorways have some additional rules that need to be respected such as:

  • Adhere to the variable speed limits displayed on overhead gantries and/or signs by the side of the road
  • It’s prohibited to drive in a lane marked with a red X above it. This sign indicates a closed lane, potentially due to an accident or a stranded vehicle. Driving in a lane with a red X is against the law, and cameras are used to enforce this rule. If you’re caught doing so you may receive three penalty points and a £100 fine.
  • Avoid crossing the solid white line and using the hard shoulder unless signs advise you to do so

How do cameras work on a smart motorway?

A frequent question that many drivers ask themselves is whether cameras work on smart motorways as they do on regular one. The short answer is yes!

By default, the cameras installed on smart motorways are set to the national speed limit, but they adjust according to the variable speed limits that may be implemented. There is a slight delay between changing the speed limit and the cameras actually enforcing it, allowing drivers enough time to gradually and safely slow down to the new speed limit.

It's important to always abide to the speed limits implemented as it’s for your safety. Furthermore, cameras used on smart motorways are fixed-point ones as the speed limit varies on them and they do not actually flash, so you won’t know should you have been caught speeding.

What should I do if I break down on a smart motorway?

The prospect of breaking down onto a smart motorway without a hard shoulder can be daunting, but the first thing to do is be calm!

Remember that vehicles usually give you some kind of indication when something is wrong (i.e. a light on the dashboard), so they won’t stop in the middle of the road all of a sudden. If case your engine fails, it may be able to cruise for a significant distance before breaking down completely, allowing you to reach an emergency layby, should a hard shoulder not be available.

As soon as you’re safe in an emergency layby or refuge area, National Highways advises to switch your hazard lights on and, if safe to do so, leave your vehicle from the passenger side, get behind the crash barrier and call the breakdown services (or walk to the nearest emergency phone).

We hope this article has helped shed some light into smart motorways and how they differ from regular ones. However, should you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to ask and we’ll be happy to point you in the right direction.


Tags: *smart_motorway *motorway *highway_uk *driving_education

Written by Lucrezia | 5.6 min read
03 Aug 2023