Smart Motorways Explained
Motorways can be daunting, and though some motorists take to them like a duck to water, it takes a while for others to gain their confidence. However you feel about the main arteries of our UK road systems, there’s one relatively recent update to some of our motorways that it’s important to get your head around; in fact, you could say that it’s a smart idea that you do so. That’s right, we’re talking about smart motorways; what they’re for, how to use them, and where you’ll find them.
It’s important for us to say first and foremost that the rollout of smart motorways across the UK has recently been cancelled, for reasons we’ll go into later on in the article. Those being already paused and any that were planned have now been stopped in their tracks.
However, this does not mean that existing smart motorways will revert back to the way they were before, so it’s important to know what they’re all about when you come across one.
What is a smart motorway?
A smart motorway is a motorway that already existed but now uses technology to control and regulate the flow of traffic. The goal here is to ease congestion - if you’ve ever been stuck in a multiple-mile tailback, you’ll know that traffic on a motorway can be inconvenient, to say the least.
There are three main types of smart motorway, all utilising gantries above the road with electronic signs that enforce variable speed limits, policed by speed cameras at regular intervals. It’s illegal to ignore any of the signs on the gantries.
What are the different types of smart motorway?
The three different types of smart motorway are:
On dynamic smart motorways, the hard shoulder can be opened if traffic is heavy, made safer by reducing the speed limit to 60MPH when they do so; this will be signalled to drivers via the signs on the gantry. If you see a red X above the hard shoulder, it’s closed to traffic and should not be used unless in an emergency.
The hard shoulder is permanent here, and variable speed limits are used to control the flow of traffic. It’s important for drivers to remain alert to these changes, as although the overhead speed cameras give a few seconds leeway in order for you to safely adjust your speed, you should be making adjustments as soon as you see a change in the speed limit, for safety’s sake, and that of your wallet!
There is no hard shoulder here; it’s been removed to make room for an extra lane. If you get into trouble on an all-lane running smart motorway, there are designated refuge areas from which to seek help. The only time that the far left lane (where the hard shoulder used to be) is closed is when a car has broken down; this will be made clear to drivers by a red X in the sign above the lane.
How do I use smart motorways?
You should adhere to the Highway Code and the laws you stick to when travelling on motorways generally, as well as take notice of the signs on the gantries and comply with these accordingly. It may help to research your journey before embarking on it, so that you can be prepared for any stretches of smart motorway that you may need to travel on.
It’s worth noting the following for when you’re next travelling on a smart motorway:
- If you see no speed limit signalled in the gantry, the national speed limit applies. Even if this is the case, the speed cameras installed as part of the smart motorway can still catch you speeding
- If you ignore the red X above a lane, you’re not only risking an automatic £100 fine and 3 points on your license made possible by cameras, it’s extremely dangerous. They could indicate an accident or breakdown; something you don’t want to come across at speed.
As soon as you see the red X, make safe and measured adjustments to your speed and/or lane location.
- The hard shoulder is still indicated by the presence of a solid white line, and you should only drive in it unless you’re directed to do so by gantries, or if you’re experiencing difficulties with your car. If the latter is the case and the hard shoulder is not available to you, find a refuge area or leave the smart motorway in search of a safe place to stop.
What are the benefits of a smart motorway?
Smart motorways were designed to promote:
In theory, controlled speeds and use of the hard shoulder (on some motorways and at certain times) mean a better flow of traffic, without everyone bunching up and causing congestion.
The reduction in start-stop traffic has a positive effect on the pollution produced by cars on motorways,
Better journey planning
Because congestion is less likely, journeys are easier to plan ahead for time-wise.
What are the disadvantages of smart motorways?
Concerns over cost and safety have resulted in the rollout of smart motorways being cancelled across the UK - so what are the disadvantages of smart motorways?
Confusion around the rules
With three types of smart motorway in force and as they’re located at different stretches of the motorway (ie, it may not be the entire motorway that’s controlled by technology), it can catch many drivers out. Confusion around the rules can cause worry at best and danger at worst.
Believe it or not, motorways in general aren’t statistically as dangerous as other types of roads, despite the speeds and lanes involved. However, with variable speed limits in place, those approaching a lower speed limit, such as 40 or 60 MPH, may apply their brakes harshly, and they risk causing an accident.
The temporary or permanent removal of the hard shoulder has also been flagged as a safety concern, as broken-down vehicles may find themselves somewhat stranded in fast-moving traffic, with emergency vehicles struggling to get to them quickly with no clear path.
Without a hard shoulder, motorists in trouble are forced to rely on emergency refuge areas (typically laybys identified by signage and the presence of an orange SOS phone). These have come under fire due to the long distances between them, and the limited space available for vehicles to safely access and then leave them.
Are smart motorways being scrapped?
In April 2023, the UK government announced that they were cancelling all planned construction of smart motorways - 14 were in the pipeline in total. For anyone familiar with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s leadership campaign, it will come as no surprise; he pledged the cancellation of smart motorways as part of his leadership bid.
Smart motorways currently account for 10% of the UK’s motorway network, and these will now have more refuge areas fitted retrospectively.
Where are the UK’s smart motorways?
Now that you know more about how to use them, you’ll be keen to find out where smart motorways are located around the UK. The table below outlines which stretches of what motorway have been converted.
J10 to J13
J6a to J10
J23a to 24
J25 to J28
J31 to J32
J16 to J13 (under construction)
J19 to J16
J24 to J25
J28 to J31
J32 to J35a
J39 to J42
J2 to 4a
J19 to J20
J3 to J12 (under construction)
J15 to J17
J4 to J6
J4 to J10a
J10a to J11a
J2 to J4 (under construction)
J10a to J13
J13 to J15 (under construction)
J16 to J19
J3 to J5 (under construction)
J2 to J3
J7 to J23
J5 to J6/7
J23 to J27
J8 to J10
J4 to J11 (under construction)
J7 to J9
J8 to J18
J23 to J30
J28 to J29
J10 to J12 (under construction)
J18 to J20
J25 to J26