How to stay safe on a smart motorway

Ginny Buckley


What is a Smart motorway? 

Smart motorways were first introduced to the UK in 2006 and are roads which are designed to increase the traffic capacity by opening up the area traditionally used as a hard shoulder so it can become a ‘live lane’. 

The motorway is monitored by radar and cameras so if there is a problem, an operator can introduce a temporary speed limit and close lanes if necessary.Although there is no hard shoulder, there are ‘refuges’ at regular intervals which can be used if you break down.

There are now about 375 miles of smart motorway in England, including 235 miles without a hard shoulder.

Why were they introduced? 

Adding an extra lane of traffic at peak times is obviously hugely beneficial for traffic flow and creating them costs a fraction of the amount needed to add extra Tarmac to a road to make it wider, it also has less environmental impact. National Highways say that the M42 smart motorway pilot cut personal injury accidents by half.

Why are they controversial? 

Mainly because people feel unsafe on them. There have been some tragic deaths too, with 38 people killed on smart motorways between 2014 and 2019. 

As a result, the Government has announced the rollout of new ALR smart motorways will be paused until a full 5 years' worth of safety data becomes available.

What should I do if I have a problem with my car on smart motorway? 

Breaking down on any type of motorway is dangerous, even if there is a hard shoulder. So you should make every effort to make sure your car is in good condition and will be able to get you to your destination. 

That includes the battery charge on an electric car - if you don’t think you will be able to get to the next charger, then you should pull off the motorway and stop somewhere safe before calling for help. 

The car will give you plenty of warning before it runs out completely – more than you’d get in a petrol car in fact.The same goes for warning lights - if the vehicle tells you there is an issue, such as with a loss of pressure in a tyre, then start planning a way to a safe place straight away. 

Large sections of the M1 are being converted to 'smart' running to ease congestion

What should I do if I break down or run out of charge on a smart motorway? 

You are going to need to take quick action to keep you, your passengers and other motorists safe. If the car suddenly stops, you have a blow out or goes into a limp mode, put on your hazard lights and try to get to a refuge, even if this means damaging your wheel or another part of your car. This is preferable to the damage which would be caused by a collision. In fact, road safety experts recommend that you keep going to the next exit if that's at all possible.

If you won’t make it to a refuge or exit but the car will move a short distance and is rolling to a stop, try and get over to the left-hand lane and get out of the car, using the doors on the left side to avoid walking into traffic. Get behind a barrier if possible and call 999. The operator will arrange for the lane to be closed and lower the speed limit. 

If the car won’t move at all, then stay inside with your seatbelt on and make it as visible as possible. Again, call 999 and they will warn the approaching traffic and arrange for help. 

Are smart motorways safe? 

Motorways in this country are among the very safest roads in the world. While they don’t make drivers feel safer, the latest generation of smart motorways with automatic detection systems have actually reduced casualty rates by more than 25% according to Highways England. 

But those systems aren’t used on all stretches of smart motorway. Edmund King, president of the AA said: “Unfortunately we have already seen fatalities where vehicles have been left in vulnerable positions in live lanes. Reports show it takes an average of 17 minutes to find the breakdown with cameras alone. Once a breakdown's been spotted, Highways England has a target to set the red ‘X’ signal within three minutes. So it could take a total of 20 minutes before the lane is closed. That's a long time to wait in a live lane with 70mph traffic driving past.” 

As a result, more than half of drivers believe the roll-out of all lane running motorways should be stopped. Edmund said, "Before any further schemes begin, we need an urgent and independent review into the safety of existing schemes." 

Should Smart Motorways be scrapped? 

The Government has already paused the roll out of new smart motorways while there is a review of safety. It has also launched an advertising campaign which aims to educate drivers about how to use them, the importance of the warning signs and what to do in an emergency. 

But it’s important to remember that variable speed limits, live monitoring and smart lane closures do improve safety – even if there is no hard shoulder. If all-lane running is used only in peak times when traffic speeds are lower, there is no reason they should be dangerous. 

As cars become ever more sophisticated this will get better still; many mainstream vehicles are already able to read signs, apply brakes in an emergency and alert you to issues on the road. Soon cars will be able to communicate with each other and alert following traffic if they skid, breakdown or have deployed an airbag. 

The technology already exists – it is just a case of agreeing a common ‘language’ and rolling it out to all vehicles.

If you think you might be developing a fault in your car, get off the motorway if you can

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