What is a smart motorway?
Road planners can turn a regular motorway into a smart motorway by using traffic management technology to increase highway capacity without bringing the carriageway to a grinding halt. The easiest way to increase road space is to use the hard shoulder as an extra running lane, either permanently or at peak times. And there are other options too, like changing speed limits to smooth traffic flow, and installing traffic lights on slip roads to control entry. Traffic lights can also be used to ease traffic flow on motorway link roads during busy periods.
Why do we need them?
The number of cars in the UK has increased virtually every year since the mid 1940’s, and there are now around 40 million vehicles licensed for use on British roads – a figure that’s growing by more than half a million every year. And it’s not just cars that are jamming up our motorways, because our growing population needs more vans and lorries to transport our food, clothing, and every single product we buy. So it’s no surprise that our highways are becoming congested. Yet building new roads and wider motorways takes up valuable land, so the smart option is to make better use of existing road space.
Where are they?
The first smart motor¬way scheme opened in 2006 on a section of the M42 in the Midlands, and today the smart network stretches over 200 miles across the country, with a further 200+ miles under construction or in the planning stage. Most of our major motorways now have at least one smart stretch, yet some are smarter than others. A ‘controlled motorway’ uses variable speed limits across multiple lanes, and retains the hard shoulder for emergency use. A ‘dynamic hard shoulder motorway’ can open up the hard shoulder as a running lane when traffic is heavy. And an ‘all lane running scheme’ opens up the hard shoulder full-time.
When you’re driving on any motorway, it’s important to follow all the regulations. But traffic on a smart motorway is often far denser, which means there’s absolutely no room for bending the rules. So ALWAYS keep to the variable speed limit shown on the overhead gantries – because they’re designed to help you and your fellow drivers get where you’re going faster. Never drive in a lane closed by a red “X”, and only drive in the hard shoulder running lane when directed to do so. If your car is experiencing mechanical problems, leave the smart motorway as soon as possible, and if you think you’re about to break down, pull into one of the designated refuge areas, which are all clearly marked.