What are Smart Motorways?

Since the UK’s first Smart Motorway was successfully trialled on the M42 in 2006, there have been a lot of discussions about the future of motorway infrastructure. Most recently, critics have reacted to the paused rollout of Smart Motorways by saying they are potentially dangerous. This page provides information on what Smart Motorways are, how safe they are, how many have been built across the UK and whether they have a future.

What is a Smart Motorway?

A smart motorway (known as an Intelligent Transport System in Scotland) is a section of a motorway that uses traffic management methods to regulate traffic flow and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas.

There are three different types of this:

  • Controlled motorway schemes have a permanent hard shoulder, but they use technology such as variable speed limits to adjust traffic flows.
  • Dynamic hard shoulder, in which the hard shoulder can be opened up at peak times and used as an extra lane. When this happens, the speed limit is reduced to 60mph.
  • All-lane running, where the hard shoulder is permanently removed to provide an extra lane. Emergency areas are provided at regular intervals for cars that need refuge.

All three models use overhead gantries to direct drivers and tell drivers whether they can drive on the hard shoulder (by using a red X).

smart motorways
copyright: GOV.uk

How many Smart Motorways are there in the UK?

There are currently 44 stretches of Smart Motorway in operation or under construction across 14 motorways in England. Most of these are on the M1, M6 and M25. The majority are in England’s south-east and around Manchester, Birmingham and Sheffield.

In Scotland, Intelligent Transport Systems are in use on the M9 to M90 and the M90-to A823(M).

You can find more details on this map provided by National Highways.

Smart Motorway rules

All normal road rules and laws apply on smart motorways – and, yes, that includes Smart Motorways speed cameras that follow the variable speed limits. Drivers also face an automatic £100 fine and three penalty points for ignoring the red X sign, as driving through it can be extremely dangerous.

Are Smart Motorways dangerous?

Earlier this year (2022), the Department for Transport (DfT) announced that it is pausing the roll-out of new Smart Motorways for five years while it collates and analyses safety evidence. The decision came two months after a House of Commons committee recommended stopping the introduction of all lane running systems amid concerns around the roads’ safety. Some critics have said that the all lane running system has contributed to fatal incidents involving broken-down vehicles being hit from behind. The DfT has pledged £900 million to upgrade existing smart motorways, including £390 million to install extra emergency refuge areas.

According to the RAC, carriageways that won’t now be turned into all-lane-running motorways until after the review is completed include the M3 J9–14, the M40/M42 interchange, the M62 J20–25 and the M25 J10–16.

How to ensure safety on Smart Motorways

As well as never driving in a lane closed by a red X and keeping to the variable speed limits, here are a couple more tips on how to stay safe on a Smart Motorway:

  • A solid white line indicates the hard shoulder, so never drive in it unless directed (a broken white line indicates a normal running lane).
  • If your vehicle experiences difficulties, exit the smart motorway as soon as possible and find a place of relative safety to stop.