Are smart motorways really that smart?

Smart motorway safety tips from Logbook Loans...

Smart motorways have gained a lot of media attention recently. Concerns have been expressed about how safe they are, and different people seem to be saying different things.

For example, according to Highways England, the number of accidents involving injuries has been reduced by more than half by smart motorways. However, it has also recently been revealed that 38 people have been killed on smart motorways in the last five years. For example, on just one 16 mile section of the M1, four people were killed in 10 months after being hit by traffic in a busy lane that used to be a hard shoulder.

Such is the level of concern about safety that at the end of January the Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, halted the £6 billion rollout of new smart motorways. This includes four stretches – of the M6, M20, M23 and M62 – that were due to be completed this spring. 

It is even possible that new smart motorways could be scrapped altogether. Mr Shapps has declared that smart motorway development “cannot continue unless Highways England proves they are as safe, if not safer, than conventional motorways”.

So in this article we will look at the topic of smart motorways. We will cover:

  • What are smart motorways?
  • Where are these motorways?
  • What do you do if you break down on a smart motorway?


What are smart motorways?

A smart motorway is a motorway whose conditions can change depending on the traffic flow and other circumstances. For example, lanes can either be opened or closed, or speed limits changed.

The three main types of smart motorway currently in use in the UK are:

  • Controlled Motorway: these motorways have a traditional hard shoulder for emergency use, but variable speed limits to control traffic flow.
  • Hard Shoulder Running: the hard shoulder is opened as a traffic lane during busy periods.
  • All Lane Running (ALR): there is no hard shoulder. What used to be the hard shoulder is now “lane one”. A lane will now only be closed to traffic in the event of an incident. This will be signalled by a red X on the gantry above.

Decisions to open/close lanes or change speed limits are made from control centres, based on computer monitoring, CCTV, police reports and information from the public.


Where are these motorways?

There are now over 400 miles of smart motorways in England. The map below shows the main locations of these motorways:

The most controversial type of smart motorways are ALR motorways. Currently there are 100 miles of ALR motorways and an additional 300 miles had been planned by 2025 before the halt by Grant Shapps.

Current ALR motorways are shown in pink on the above map. A list of their locations is: 


  • M1:  Junctions 16-19, 23a-25, 28-31, 32-35a, 39-42
  • M3:  Junctions 2-4a
  • M5:  Junctions 4a-6, 15-17
  • M6:  Junctions 10a-13, 16-19
  • M25: Junctions 5-7, 23-27
  • M62: Junctions 25-26


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

So why are the ALR smart motorways the most controversial? The main problem is that when there is a breakdown there is no hard shoulder to pull into. So what should you do?

Firstly be aware that your breakdown should be picked up by the control centre. Most ALR motorways use a system called MIDAS, which can detect slowing traffic. Newer ALR motorways use more advanced technology called SVD (stationary vehicle detection) which automatically identifies a stranded vehicle. 

However, it can take valuable time for your breakdown to be detected remotely. So as well as the above, there are also 3 essential steps that you need to take:

  1. ALR motorways have SOS areas, also known as ERAs (Emergency Refuge Area). They are usually painted orange and occur around every couple of miles on an ALR motorway. So always be on the lookout for these and if you are having car problems do everything you can to get into an ERA before the car stops completely. Get everyone out of the car and behind the safety barrier. There is an emergency phone at the ERA to call for help.
  2. If you cannot get to an ERA do your best to get as far over to the left as possible. Put on hazard lights straightaway, and other lights if visibility is poor. Get everyone out of the car if it is safe to do so, and as far away from the traffic as possible. Call 999 immediately.
  3. If it is not safe to get out of the car, or if you are stranded in another lane, keep your seatbelts on and turn on your hazard warning lights. Call 999 immediately.


So, the future of smart motorways is currently in some doubt. As is whether existing smart motorways would also be scrapped. But for now there are several in existence, so if you do motorway driving then you need to be aware of where they are and what to do in the event of an emergency.

This awareness could save your life!

Remember to check back here soon for more motoring and lifestyle tips from Logbook Loans.