What is a Smart Motorways and How Does it Work?

What is a Smart Motorways and How Does it Work?

Smart motorways are a type of road that use technology to monitor traffic and make changes in real time. This helps them manage traffic more effectively and reduce delays.

It also helps emergency services get to accident scenes quicker. However, these changes have led to some safety concerns.

Controlled motorways

Smart motorways are a great way to improve the flow of traffic, but they’re only useful if you stick to the rules and abide by the instructions given by the overhead gantries (the electric boards above each lane). The most obvious rule is to not drive in any lane marked with a red X, as that’s a warning that you need to leave it immediately.

Controlled motorways are the most familiar of all the smart motorways, with variable speed limits monitored by frequently positioned speed cameras. This is the type of motorway you’re most likely to drive on, and it’s also the one that comes with the highest risk of getting a speeding ticket.

Dynamic smart motorways are the same as controlled motorways, except that the hard shoulder can be opened up to become an extra lane during peak times. These are often known as ‘All-Lane Running’ motorways.

Dynamic motorways

With demand on our roads continuing to increase, ways of increasing capacity without widening or building new motorways are needed.

Smart motorways use technology and operational changes to reduce congestion, improve journey times, and guarantee smoother, safer journeys for millions of drivers every year. The technology includes variable speed limits, an Active Traffic Management system that can open or close lanes, and a hard shoulder that can be used as an extra lane when traffic is heavy and more road capacity is required.

These smart motorways – often known as ‘dynamic hard shoulder’ sections – use electronic signs to open up the hard shoulder for use when traffic is heavy and more road capacity is needed. They also feature emergency refuge areas at regular intervals for cars that find themselves in trouble.

These stretches of motorway also feature variable speed limits, which can be displayed on overhead gantries. It’s important to follow the speed limit on these roads, and ensure you’re driving at the correct speed until advised otherwise.

All-Lane Running motorways

Smart motorways are sections of roads that use traffic-management methods to reduce congestion and improve journey times. They can be controlled using a number of different systems, including variable speed limits.

All-Lane Running (ARL) schemes involve the hard shoulder permanently being converted into an inside lane to increase carriageway capacity and ease traffic flow. However, they have been criticised for safety concerns.

Despite these, the Government announced in March 2020 that all future smart motorways would be all-lane running, but it has paused the rollout of new stretches to collect more safety data.

RAC road safety spokesperson Simon Williams says: “Ever since the first ‘all lane running’ smart motorway opened on the M25 in 2014, there has been considerable controversy about safety which worsened significantly following several high-profile fatal collisions. Consequently, these roads continue to be deeply unpopular with drivers who have been used to having the relative refuge of a hard shoulder available in an emergency.”

Emergency refuge areas

Emergency refuge areas are an essential part of a smart motorway. They provide a safer place to stop than the hard shoulder, which can be difficult to use in an emergency.

They are also wider than a hard shoulder and set back from live traffic lanes so a vehicle in one is less likely to be struck by moving traffic. However, a new investigation by ITV News Meridian has found that many emergency refuge areas on smart motorways fall short of the design specification – and this is causing confusion for drivers.

An ERA is marked with large blue signs featuring an orange SOS telephone symbol. Arrows will direct you into an indicated area, marked on tarmac and painted orange, where you should stop and switch on your hazard warning lights. Occupants should then exit the vehicle from the passenger side and stand behind a crash barrier. They should then call a representative at Highways England who will give further instructions.


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