OK, so just what is a smart motorway?

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We’re hearing a lot at the moment about so-called ‘smart’ motorways.


So it might be a dumb question, but exactly what does that mean? There’s one argument that says, when it comes to roads, motorways are already pretty smart. After all, they’re straight, they’re not punctuated by roundabouts and traffic lights, and if you’re lucky, they get you where you want quicker than any other route. And let’s not forget that they are safer – motorists have fewer accidents on them than on other roads. But now motorways are getting even cleverer. Pioneering ‘smart’ technology has been developed to reduce congestion and ease traffic flow, avoiding the need for expensive and often controversial road-widening schemes.

Smart moves

A ‘smart’ motorway scheme involves: - converting the hard shoulder into an additional lane to reduce traffic jams - installing more cameras to enforce speed limits, and - putting up new warning signs to let drivers know about impending hazards. The first ‘smart’ scheme opened on an eight-mile section of the M25 in April last year. Further sections, one on the southern part of the M25, and another on the northern section, are now also in operation.

Northern lights

But it’s not just the south-east of England which is benefiting from smart technology. In the north, a 17-mile stretch of the network between Junction 8 of the M60 near Sale and Junction 20 of the M62 near Rochdale is being upgraded to a smart motorway. Work on the project will be completed by the autumn of 2017. Similar schemes are also being rolled out on the M1 and M3. The hard shoulder is also being permanently converted into an extra lane on a five-mile stretch of the M62 between junctions 18 and 20 to help ease congestion.

Sign of the times

Once the changes are finished, more than 200 electronic signs on the M60 and M62 will be in place to warn drivers of traffic incidents, changes in the mandatory speed limit and any lane closures. There will also be more CCTV cameras introduced to monitor traffic levels from the Highways Agency’s Regional Control Centre at Newton-le-Willows in Merseyside. Finally, there will be emergency ‘refuge’ areas available on the section of M62 which doesn’t have a hard shoulder. Overhead signs will display a red ‘X’ indicating which lanes are shut during incidents, allowing police, ambulance and fire services easy access.

At-a-glance smart motorway golden rules

The Highways Agency has published a list of smart motorway rules to help drivers adapt to the new motorways. On a smart motorway you should:

  • never drive under 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
  • use the refuge areas for emergencies if there’s no hard shoulder
  • put your hazard lights on if you break down.

Candid cameras

Most motorists welcome improvements to motorways – after all, any steps to help ease congestion are surely a good thing.

However, the scheme is not proving so popular with drivers who nudge over the 70mph speed limit and who are caught out by the new high-tech cameras which face both forwards and backwards. In contrast to the usual yellow speed cameras, these cameras are grey, and able to track across four lanes rather than just one. It has been reported that on one section of the M25 in Kent, between junctions five and six, 668 motorists have been caught in just two months after the cameras were turned on.

These drivers face at least £100 in fines, as well as points on their licence. Of these 668, 520 received tickets where the limit was set at exactly 70mph. This is despite the fact most motorists believe they are allowed a margin of grace over any speed limit – police don’t normally stop anyone below 79mph. And then there’s the cost of smart motorways. The bill for these ‘stealth’ cameras alone apparently runs to £2.1m of taxpayers’ money.

Learn more

You can find out more about the development of smart motorways on the Highways Agency’s website. You can register on the site to be kept informed about the news on the scheme.

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