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smart motorways

Just how smart are smart motorways?

What you need to know about the latest design of actively managed motorways

Smart motorway

Whether you've driven on one already or have seen them in the news, chances are you've heard of smart motorways. But what does 'smart motorway' mean? How is it different to a normal motorway?

We're here to answer your questions, including how to stay safe on a smart motorway.

On this page:


What's a smart motorway?

A smart motorway is a motorway that uses different methods to manage the flow of traffic. They respond in real-time to keep traffic moving when there's congestion, roadworks, traffic jams and accidents.

They were first introduced by Highways England in 2006. They're different to normal motorways, which have a fixed speed limit of 70mph (unless there are roadworks or there's an incident) and a permanent hard shoulder.

The difference with smart motorways is that they use:

  • CCTV, radar and sensors to keep an eye on traffic.
  • speed restrictions and lanes closures if there’s an incident or congestion.
  • traffic calming measures like variable speed limits (of 40, 50 or 60mph), red 'X' lanes or driving on the hard shoulder.
  • overhead signs and large roadside information signs to warn you about queues, speed limits, closed lanes and diversions.

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What are the different types of smart motorway?

There are 3 different types of smart motorway:

1. Controlled motorway

These have 3 or more lanes, variable speed limits and a hard shoulder for emergency use only. They're sometimes known as managed motorways.

An example of this type of motorway is the western section of the M25.

2. Dynamic hard shoulder

These have variable speed limits and a hard shoulder that can be opened up to traffic at busy times. Overhead signs tell you when you can drive on the hard shoulder.

These motorways have a solid line marking the left-most lane.

Examples of this type of motorway are the M42 at J7-9, the M4 at J19-20, and the M5 at J15-17.

Hard shoulder running motorway

3. All lane running

These motorways have variable speed limits, no hard shoulder, and emergency refuge areas approximately every 2.5km or 1.6km. Overhead signs will show a red 'X' if you can't use a particular lane.

These type of motorways have a dotted line marking the left-most lane.

Examples of this type of motorway are the the M25 at J23-27 and at J5-6/7.

All lanes running smart motorway


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What's the aim of a smart motorway?

The aim of smart motorways is to keep traffic flowing more smoothly. Variable speed limits can help to manage jams and rush hour traffic. Red 'X' lanes can tell drivers when lanes are closed due to an accident or roadworks.

The aim of dynamic hard shoulder and all lane running motorways is to reduce congestion without big costs and miles of roadworks. That's because opening up the hard shoulder as an extra lane is cheaper and less disruptive than widening the road.

Red x lane smart motorway


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Which UK motorways are smart?

Highways England has a map of all the smart motorways in England which you can find on the gov.uk website. There's now more than 400 miles of smart motorway in the UK.

Sections of these motorways are all lane running (with no hard shoulder) or are under construction:

  • M1 - J16-13, J19-16, J24-25, J28-35a, J39-42  
  • M3 - J2-4a
  • M4 - J3-12
  • M5 - J4a-6
  • M6 - J10a-13, J16-19, J13-15, J2-4
  • M20 - J3-5
  • M23 - J8-10
  • M25 - J5-6/7, J23-27
  • M27 - J4-11
  • M62 - J18-20, J10-12, J25-26

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Do smart motorways have hard shoulders?

Many smart motorways don't have a hard shoulder or only have a hard shoulder at certain times:

  • All lane running motorways don't have a permanent hard shoulder. Instead, the left-most lane is used as normal driving lane and there are emergency refuge areas at regular intervals. If a car breaks down here, the lane can be closed with a red 'X' sign.
  • Dynamic hard shoulder motorways have a temporary hard shoulder. It's used as a hard shoulder when it's quiet but can be opened up to drivers to ease traffic at busy times.
  • Controlled motorways have a permanent hard shoulder which works the same way as a normal motorway hard shoulder.

all lanes running motorway with one lane as red x


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What is an emergency refuge area?

On all lane running motorways, you’ll find emergency refuge areas at regular intervals. They count as 'places of relative safety' for drivers to pull into in an emergency. 'Places of relative safety' also include motorway service areas and short stretches of hard shoulder on exit slipways.

At first, smart motorways were built with a maximum of 2.5km between 'places of relative safety'. But, thanks to pressure from us and the Transport Select Committee, Highways England reduced this to 1.6km for new motorways to be built in 2020.

They're also going to be painted bright orange and have road signs counting down to them at 300, 200 and 100 yards. They should all be that standard by spring 2020 to make them more visible.

Emergency refuge area


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How do I use an emergency refuge area?

If you have to stop in an emergency area, follow these steps:

  • Use the emergency SOS phone to contact the Regional Control Centre.
  • Let them know you've broken down so operators can monitor your vehicle by CCTV.
  • They'll contact us and we'll send out a mechanic or recovery truck to you as a priority.
  • Wait behind the safety barrier well away from traffic until the AA van arrives.
  • Once your vehicle's fixed, we'll contact the Regional Control Centre on the SOS phone before leaving.

Emergency areas are only short lay-bys and they're not long enough to build up speed before re-joining the motorway. So before leaving, you must contact the Regional Control Centre. They’ll dispatch a Highways England Traffic Officer and/or set signs and signals (red 'X') to help you back onto the motorway safely.


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What do I do if I break down on a smart motorway?

If you break down on a smart motorway, try to get off the motorway if you can and stop somewhere safe. You could pull into a service station or onto a slip road hard shoulder, for example.

If you aren't able to get off the motorway, pull over into the hard shoulder if there is one. If there's no hard shoulder, aim for an emergency refuge area.

  • Stop your car as far to the left as possible
  • Switch your hazard and side lights on
  • Get out of the car using the doors opposite the traffic if possible
  • Climb over the safety barrier if you can
  • Position yourself past the back of your car and wait as far up the verge and away from the barrier as you can.

If you break down in a live lane, you'll need to call 999 straight away so they can close the lane you're in. In this case, stay in your vehicle with your seat belt on and all your lights on.

If you break down in a live lane, phone 999.


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What is a red 'X' lane?

A red 'X' could mean that someone's broken down in that lane, there are workmen in the lane or there's another obstruction. You must move out the lane if you see a red 'X' over it when you're driving. Don't go back into the lane until told to by the road signs.

If you drive in a red 'X' lane, you could get a £100 fine and 3 points on your licence.

Highways England has advice in this video on what to do when you see a lane with a red 'X'.


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Do smart motorways work?

There's evidence that the systems which manage and monitor traffic don't always work as they should. Plus, they can be confusing and scary for drivers.

  • There were some cases where it took over an hour for an operator checking CCTV to spot a broken down vehicle.
  • The official target is to spot an incident in 3 minutes, but it's still a long time to wait if you're in a live lane with traffic hurtling past at 70mph.
  • The boss of Highways England admitted that drivers are confused by some smart motorways, as reported by The Daily Telegraph.1

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Are smart motorways dangerous?

There are different opinions on how safe smart motorways are. Highways England says:

  • Motorways in this country are among the very safest roads in the world.
  • Evidence indicates that smart motorways are helping to improve safety.
  • The latest generation of smart motorways have reduced casualty rates by more than 25%.

Despite this, there have been several cases of deaths on smart motorways which have hit the headlines. 8-year old Dev Naran was killed in an open hard shoulder lane in May 2018. In October 2019, the Coroner for West Midlands said they were going to raise their concerns with Highways England following Dev's death.2

Latest news from the AA


But there are deaths on traditional 3-lane motorways too. More than 100 people a year are killed or injured on hard shoulders. Highways England wants to make the safest roads possible and remove the risk of death. They say "Smart motorways are designed with safety in mind, to be at least as safe as the conventional motorways they replace."

The Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, told MPs "we know people are dying" on smart motorways, which is why there is going to be a review of the scheme.


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What does the AA think about smart motorways?

We have some concerns as we care about driver safety, as well as the safety of our mechanics who attend broken down vehicles.

Edmund King, AA President, said “Unfortunately we have already seen fatalities where vehicles have been left in vulnerable positions in live lanes. Previous research has shown that if Stopped Vehicle Detection is not in place it takes an average of 17 minutes to spot a stationary vehicle in a live lane."3

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 3 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.

Only 1 in 10 drivers feel safer on an all lane running motorway

AA Populus poll, 2019

When we did a study, we found that only 1 in 10 drivers say they feel safer on all lane running motorways compared to traditional motorways.4

Our survey asked more than 15,000 drivers and found that 7 out of 10 believed that all lane running motorways felt more dangerous than a motorway with a permanent hard shoulder.

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


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Published: 22 December 2016 | Updated: 13 December 2019 | Author: The AA


1 The Daily Telegraph, 24/10/2019, p.13, Jess Carpani
2 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/10/12/smart-motorways-controversy-escalates-boy-killed-m6-crash
3 https://www.theaa.com/about-us/newsroom/news/17-minutes-to-spot-a-live-lane-breakdown-on-smart-motorways
4 Populus received 15,152 responses from AA members to its online poll between 17th and 25th September 2019. Populus is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.

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