There’s been a lot of talk about smart motorways in recent years, how they work, whether they’re safe, and where they’re being rolled out.
Congestion is a growing problem and road authorities need to introduce methods to combat it. There are 488 miles of it on motorways such as the M1, M4, M5, and M6 and Highways England revealed last year there will be an extra 300 miles created without hard shoulders by 2025.
So, it’s increasingly important that you understand smart motorways and how to drive on them. Here’s our essential guide…
So, what is the definition of a smart motorway?
This is a busy section of motorway which uses traffic management systems to reduce congestion.
The methods used include imposing variable speed limits and using the hard shoulder as a running lane.
The aim is to minimise the impact on the environment and reduce the cost of managing traffic by avoiding having to build extra lanes.
There are three different types of smart motorway:
· All-lane running – The hard shoulder is permanently removed and converted into a running lane. Lane one is only closed with a red X on the gantry above when there is an accident. Drivers should leave the lane as soon as they can. Remaining in it can be highly dangerous. Speed limits are displayed on the gantry and variable speed limits can be used. CCTV is used to monitor traffic for incidents such as a break down. There are also emergency refuge areas which can be used.
· Controlled motorways – These have three or more lane with variable speed limits and a traditional hard shoulder for emergencies. The speed limits are shown on overhead gantries.
· Dynamic hard shoulder running – The hard shoulder is operated as a running lane during busy periods. Overhead gantries show whether these hard shoulders are open to traffic. It cannot be used unless the sign indicates it is open. Speed limits are shown on the overhead gantry and they can be variable.
How are smart motorways being received by drivers and driving organisations?
Although journey reliability has improved by 22% on smart motorways, there are two main concerns held by drivers.
The first is that changing speed limits in variable speed limit areas can lead to shape braking unless they are introduced gradually.
The second is the lack of a hard shoulder and the effect it has when there is a breakdown or accident on the motorway. Many drivers feel this makes these smart motorways more dangerous.
In fact, a 2019 survey by the RAC found that 68% of the drivers it questioned felt that removing the hard shoulder made a motorway more dangerous.
To combat this concern, emergency refuge areas have been included next to the carriageway when there is no hard shoulder.They are every 1.5 miles on current all-lane running motorways and there are plans for more frequent ERAs on new smart motorways.
What are the best tips for driving on them?
· Don’t drive in a lane closed by an X.
· A solid white line shows a hard shoulder, so don’t go in it. A broken white line indicates a running lane.
· If a warning light flashes or your vehicle gives you any kind of warning sign, take the next exit off the motorway.
· Keep to the speed limits shown on the overhead gantries.
What should you do in an emergency?
If you break down, try to use an ERA. They are marked with large blue signs with orange phone symbols on them.
You’ll be directed into an orange area by arrow. Stop and turn off your engine, put on your hazard lights, exit via the passenger side, and go behind the crash barrier.
Use the SOS phone and you’ll get more instructions. Don’t use them unless it’s a breakdown, accident, or emergency.
If you can’t get to an ERA, switch on your hazards and go behind the safety barrier.
If you can’t move into the nearside lane or get out of it safely, stay in the vehicle and call 999. Keep your seatbelt on. In this case, the highways authority needs to call in the breakdown service and the police to make the site safe.
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