Smart Motorways (The Basics)

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As our cars develop and move into the future, as do our roads. This had begun with our motorways, or more specifically, our ‘smart’ motorways.

Now they’re not smart enough to place down as your Phone-a-Friend when you’re stuck on that £64,000 question about classical literature, but they are smart enough to use traffic management methods to increase capacity and reduce congestion in busier areas of the motorway.


Smart Motorways were developed by Highways England to manage the ever increasing traffic on our roads in a way that has minimal environmental impact, cost and time to construct (as additional lanes do not need to be built and added). To ease congestion, these smart motorways close and open the hard shoulder as an additional lane when required and uses variable speed limits to control the flow of traffic.


There are three different types of smart motorway schemes: all lane running schemes, controlled motorways and dynamic hard shoulder running schemes.


All Lane Running Schemes


As the name of the scheme suggests, all lane running schemes mean that at all times, every lane on the motorway is being utilised, permanently removing the hard shoulder. These sections of motorway are heavily monitored by CCTV and have digital screens above each lane on every gantry. In the case of a breakdown or accident, these digital screens with display a red X to indicate which lanes are closed.


Controlled Motorways


Controlled motorways have three or more lanes which are controlled with variable speed limits. The variable speed limits are put into place depending on the severity of the traffic and is intended to slow and therefore control the flow of vehicles to ease congestion.

Many however are concerned over these variable speed limits as sudden changes has forced drivers to slam on their brakes to reduce their speed in time of speed cameras. There is no official time period of when a speed camera changes to the variable speed but unfortunately it can be as quick as 10 seconds.


Dynamic Hard Shoulder Running Schemes


Dynamic hard shoulder running involves opening and closing the hard shoulder depending on the amount of congestion on the motorway. In the same way as the variable speed limits, the gantry indicates whether the hard shoulder lane is available for use at any given time with a red X.

Similar to the all lane running scheme, these stretches of motorway are heavily monitored by CCTV for any accidents or broken down vehicles to act appropriately with a closure of the hard shoulder.


Since the introduction of smart motorways in 2006, Highways England have said that journey reliability has improved by 22% year on year, personal injury accidents have reduced by more than half and where accidents did occur, severity was much lower overall with zero fatalities and fewer serious injured.




The same laws and sentencing applied to smart motorways for speeding but with a higher density of cameras and variable speed limits, there is a much higher chance of being caught and fined for speeding.


One thing to remember on smart motorways is that the speed cameras operate at all times, even when there are not variable speed limits in place. If no speed limit is displayed on the digital screens, the national speed limit applies and the cameras will be operational.


Speeding fines are also now calculated based on your salary and severity of the speeding offence. If you are unsure of how much you are being charged for speeding, or are curious as to how much you would be fined if you did break the speed limit, see Confused’s Speed Fine Calculator that will show you fines based on the criteria you enter.


Next week we will be giving you tips on how to drive on smart motorways and advise you on what to do if you do unfortunately breakdown on one.





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