The UK’s smart motorway network is expanding by the day – so if you’re not up to speed on how they work and how to drive on one, here’s a quick explainer.
Why so smart? It’s the traffic management technology that transforms a regular motorway into a smart motorway. And although it may not seem apparent when you’re sitting in a jam, it’s all designed to accommodate an ever-increasing number of vehicles without bringing the country to a grinding halt. The simplest way to keep the traffic moving is to increase road space, and smart motorways achieve this by opening up the hard shoulder as a running lane. They also regulate the flow of vehicles by imposing variable speed limits, and by installing traffic lights to control entry to slip roads. So in theory, pinch-points are relieved, hold-ups reduced, and we all get where we’re going faster.
Why do we need them? Despite the UK’s extensive public transport system, we continue to rely heavily on our cars, and the volume of traffic on UK roads has increased virtually every year for the past seven decades. The number of cars in the UK is growing by around 500,000 every year, and there are now approximately 40 million vehicles licensed for use on British roads. This includes a growing fleet of commercial vehicles working around the clock to deliver our food, clothing, and all the other products we use every day. And to make room for all this traffic, the government can either build more roads or make more efficient use of existing road space, which is the smart option.
Three levels of smart Back in 2006, a short stretch of the M42 in the Mildands became the UK’s first smart motorway, and today the network has grown to more than 235 miles, with a further 200+ miles either planned or under construction. Yet not all smart motorways are the same, and some are smarter than others. There are three types of smart motorway: ‘all-lane running schemes’, ‘controlled motorways’, and ‘dynamic hard shoulder motorways’. The first opens up the hard shoulder 24/7. The second has variable speed limits across three lanes, but retains the hard shoulder for emergency use. And the third opens up the hard shoulder to traffic during busy periods.
Smart driving Smart motorways are designed to manage high-volume traffic flows more efficiently, but to work properly, all drivers need to follow the rules closely. So ALWAYS keep within the speed limit shown on overhead gantries. Only drive on the hard shoulder when directed to do so. And NEVER drive in a lane marked with a red “X”. Lane speeds and lane closures can change at any time, so pay close attention to the illuminated signs. And remember that smart motorway traffic is closely monitored, which means failure to obey instructions can result not only in congestion - it can also lead to a hefty fine and penalty points.