Just How Smart are Britain’s Smart Motorways?

Just How Smart are Britain’s Smart Motorways?

Britain currently has around 250 miles of ‘Smart’ motorway, distributed across the M1, M4, M5, M6, M25 and M42, and that number is set to double over the coming years – it’s seen as a cheap and affordable way to increase the motorway capacity without actually building new lanes or motorways, but is it really the best option?

Or perhaps a cynical reader may think it’s purely another money maker for the authorities, and there is some evidence to back that up: between 2014-15, on the stretches of smart motorway covering the M1, M25, M4, M5 and M6, there were 52,516 speeding tickets issued, between the years 2011-12, the same stretches of road saw … 2,023 tickets. This equates to over an extra £1 million of revenue in speeding tickets alone. 

What is a ‘Smart’ motorway?

Essentially, a smart motorway is a stretch of motorway that can or is being used with alllanes, including the hard shoulder to ease congestion, either at busy periods or as a permanent fixture, there are three basic types of smart motorway:

All Lane Running

This type of road uses the hard shoulder as lane one permanently – effectively, there is no hard shoulder, although the lane can be closed via overhead gantry signs in the event of a safety issue. 


These use three or more lanes with an active and variable speed limit, again, the limits changing with the use of the overhead gantry, the hard shoulder remains as the hard shoulder. 

Dynamic Hard Shoulder

As the name suggests, this is where the hard shoulder can be opened or closed as the need arises; when traffic is particularly heavy, the hard shoulder can be used. 

Safety areas

The question of safety always arises with motorways, smart motorways in particular – if the hard shoulder is in use, what happens to cars/vehicles that breakdown – where can they go, and how can they be safe? Any motorway that’s using the hard shoulder as a driving lane, be that temporary or fixed, has Emergency Refuge Areas (ERA) approximately every 1 ¼ miles – traveling at 60 mph, you should reach the next refuge within 75 seconds according to the Highways England. 

The first smart motorway was opened in 2006 on the M42, and statistics tell us that not only has it had a positive impact on safety, but that the journey quality has also improved; accidents with personal injuries have been halved since the opening, and there have been zero fatalities on the stretch of M42 that uses intelligent operation methods, added to that is the 22% improvement for journey reliability, and you can see that in theory, smart motorways are a good thing. 

Estimates say that congestion on motorways and the surrounding major road networks costs the UK £2 billion annually, with 25% of that figure a result from incidents or accidents, so any improvement to the running or safety of a motorway could potentially have a large impact on the country, and of course, with the authorities not having to spend money on building roads (typically, widening a stretch of the M6 motorway costs around £1,000 per inch, or around £64 million per mile), money can be saved in vast amounts (along with making money from fines etc). 

Speeding on the motorway

We briefly touched upon the rise in speeding tickets on smart motorways, but many drivers believe that the speed cameras are only active when the variable speed limits are in force, this isn’t the case; the speed cameras are always on, ready and waiting to catch any motorist speeding through that section. 

Breaking these speed limits will result in a fine, but depending on the offence, it could be anywhere between 25% of their weekly wage, right up to 175%. There are three categories for levying fines and/or penalty points. 

Band A

Classed as a minor offence, this is for motorists that exceed the limit by between one and ten mph, it will be dealt with by a fine that’s between 25-75% of the weekly wage, and 3 penalty points. 

Band B

The middle offence, for speeding motorists that are caught at between 11-20 mph above the speed limit, it can be 4-6 penalty points and anywhere between 75-125% of the weekly wage in fines. 

Band C

The most serious offence, with stiff penalties – 6 penalty points and a fine that is between 125-175% of the weekly wage – if you earn £500 per week, that could be around £875 in fines. This is for anything above 22 mph over the limit. 

It’s also worth noting that any motorist that’s had their driving licence for less than two years, a band C offence could see them losing their licence and facing an immediate driving ban. 

Earlier this year, organisations such as the AA gave criticism regarding the speed limits, as many of their members had reported that in some stretches, speed limits were imposed and seemed un-necessarily low, perhaps artificially so, when traffic and weather conditions were good. Highways England have stated that they were already reviewing how the limits are set, and for how long they stay active. 

Advice for driving on a smart motorway

Despite there being no real difference between a motorway or smart motorway, there is official guidance on driving on them, and it’s worth knowing – breaching some of the regulations can land you with a fine, or put you at a high risk of danger. 

Red X

Despite being a huge temptation, never ignore a red X, either on the overhead gantry or roadside signs, this means that the lane is closed for a reason. It could be that the active traffic management is no longer in force, or there could be a hazard further up the road – a broken down car for example. 

On seeing a red X, you should always try and leave the lane as soon as it’s safe and legal to do so. If you fail to switch lanes, you could face a fine. 


Having a breakdown on the side of a motorway is stressful, dangerous and scary at the best of times, but when there is no hard shoulder, it can be much worse. 

Try and get yourself to a safety refuge area, they’re spaced at just over a mile apart (typically), but if you can’t, you should try and pull your car off the motorway as far as you can – even if that means actually on to the verge. Best practice is to leave the car (if it’s safe to do so) whenever possible, preferably via the passenger exit. Wait behind any safety rails, or away from the car, but remain visible if possible. 

If you can’t get out of your car for whatever reason, leave your seatbelt on, and call the emergency services. You should always use your hazard lights to warn other traffic, whether you’ve left the vehicle or not. 

The biggest risk is night time driving, especially if you suffer total electrical failure – leaving you without the ability to illuminate your vehicle when it’s stationary, our advice would always be to try and exit the vehicle where possible. 

Speed limits

As already mentioned, the cameras on managed motorways are ‘always on’ – meaning that they’re constantly monitoring your speeds, regardless of whether it’s reduced speed or national speed limit. Breaking the limit could result in a fine and penalty points. 


There are always going to be safety concerns with the use of smart motorways, but the fact is that they’re muchcheaper to develop than widening an existing carriageway – approximately one-third of the cost, so they are definitely here to stay. 

Motorways in general, are the safest roads in the UK, especially when you compare the volume of traffic that they carry, but increased speeds will always have an inherent risk, and the fact that concentration isn’t at 100% brings about further risk, yet it has been proven that the hard shoulder element of a smart motorway hasn’t caused any added increase in the danger element, and providing that people take safe precautions, that should remain so. 

Yes, it seems that it’s easier for the authorities to target the motorist for speeding and minor traffic infringements, but in all honesty, that unfortunately, is part of the process of owning a car in the digital world – less road traffic police due to cuts, but still an increase in motoring related fines. 

What are your thoughts on smart motorways? Get in touch and let us know.