Smart Motorways – What do we need to know to keep safe?

I have been of the opinion for many years that Smart, Dynamic and ALR (All lanes running) motorways offer very little protection for motorists involved in breakdowns and many of the varied situations we could find ourselves in on todays busy motorway network.

So, what is a Smart Motorway and more to the point, why do we need them? In theory, Smart Motorways should ease traffic congestion and give road users early warning of accidents and incidents well in advance, this should ensure traffic is kept flowing and RTC’s (Road traffic collisions) should be less frequent.

Smart Motorways rely on a network of CCTV and on some sections of the M25 radar technology that will warn of stranded vehicles. They also rely on other motorists making Highways England aware of incidents and accidents they see or are involved in. The control centres then decide how to deal with the incident based on the information they receive which, at best can be a little sketchy to say the least.

So, whichever lane the stranded vehicle(s) are in, a Red X will be displayed over that lane to stop following traffic proceeding any further in those lanes.
Some Police forces are fining drivers for ignoring the Red X however, if you see a Red X above your lane then move into a lane not showing the Red X as soon as and as safely as possible. We see motorists ignoring the Red X on a regular basis, I can only think they haven’t seen it having being distracted or are oblivious as to the significance of the sign itself!

The same can be said of motorists ignoring gantry speed signs. If a sign is lit up on the gantry saying 50 mph then you should slowly decrease your speed to 50 mph and stay at that speed until the gantry signs say otherwise. The cameras at the side of Smart Motorways detect vehicles travelling above the stated speed limit and many will issue fines to the owner of the vehicle if speed limits are breached.

Smart Motorways

So, it is worth remembering that it is illegal to drive in a lane closed by a Red X sign. If caught, you could receive a fixed penalty of up to £100 and three points, and in some cases more severe penalties or end up in court! It’s the responsibility of the police to enforce Red X offences and not Highways England.

All Lanes Running Motorways and Breakdowns

These seem to be the main cause of incidents and accidents on our motorway network simply because Highways England have taken away the hard shoulder, this then means that unless we can make it to an ERA (Emergency Refuge Area) we have very little, if any protection from following vehicles.

Dynamic Motorways differ slightly in respect that the hard shoulder is generally used at peak times or in case of accident or incident that means closing or indeed opening the hard shoulder to traffic could mean less disruption to journey times and increased safety for stranded motorists.

Try to put yourself in this situation: You are travelling along a busy stretch of Smart ALR motorway in lane 3 of 4 and without warning the engine cuts out, you come to a stop, what do you do? Now, this scenario could happen on a traditional motorway with a hard shoulder however, following traffic on Smart Motorways doesn’t have anywhere to go (hard shoulder for example). The chance of being hit from behind is now a near certainty unless the driver following is paying full attention to the vehicle in front.

This link give advice to drivers who find themselves in this dangerous situation:

So, Highways England advise you stay in your vehicle if stranded in lanes 2, 3 or 4, call 999 or 112, keep yours and your passengers seat belts on and use hazard warning lights. We also suggest applying the handbrake and keeping your foot on the footbrake to further alert following traffic. Not a good place to be, unless you feel it is safe enough to exit your vehicle which is highly unlikely in heavy traffic and the chance of getting killed or seriously injured leaving your vehicle is extremely high!

The advice for drivers who make it to lane one is to leave the vehicle by the passenger doors, get everyone (excluding pets) out of the vehicle, away from the carriageway and behind the barriers, do NOT stay in the vehicle and try to remember to use hazard warning lights.

ERA’s (Emergency Refuge Areas)

These are the refuge areas we can use in an emergency only, not to be used for toilet stops, picnics or LGV or PCV driver breaks!

Unfortunately, ERA’s are spaced too far apart in my opinion, most are around 1 mile apart with some being up to 1 ½ miles apart giving limited opportunity for motorists experiencing issues to safely enter and have some degree of safety from following traffic.

The ERA below is Dynamic Motorway part of the M1 South of Milton Keynes:

Smart Motorways

If you are lucky enough to find an ERA that is free of other vehicles, you should then exit the vehicle from the passenger door, pick up the phone which is located within the ERA and this should link you directly to Highways England. For safety CCTV will be recording whilst you are inside the ERA.

Give them the information they ask and adhere to their instructions whilst awaiting recovery. Once you are ready to leave the ERA, you MUST inform them of your intention to leave. Highways England will then close lane 1 by using the Red X, you must then await their instructions on how and when to leave the ERA. Failure to do so could see you fined or even worse, cause an accident.

What can we do to minimise our risk?

Many drivers are not familiar with Smart Motorways for many reasons so, with that in mind you need to ensure you know the rules regarding the roads you are using and use them in a safe, considerate and sensible manner.

A major cause of accidents on Smart Motorways is lane hopping and undertaking, both extremely dangerous and remember, LGV’s have huge blind spots, area’s that cannot be seen clearly by the driver through his/her mirrors.

Driving too close to the vehicle in front is also a major issue for many of us. Keeping a safe distance not only lowers your stress levels but it can also mean the difference between stopping safely or hitting the vehicle in front, always leave yourself an out or escape route.

Always ensure your vehicle is fit for the journey paying particular attention to tyres, an under inflated tyre can heat up at high speeds and cause it to blow out leaving you stranded. The obvious oil, water and lights checks should always be carried out before any journey. Consider the journey itself, do you really need to travel and if so have you planned your route, what are the weather conditions likely to be on the day you are travelling?

I hope this blog has been useful however, should you need further help or advice, then contact Transport and Logistics Compliance Training at or follow this link for more Smart Motorway information:

Drive safely!