The chances are you’ve driven on some of the 416 miles of ‘smart motorways’ across the UK, even if you didn’t realise it at the time.

The differences between plain old motorways and smart ones are subtle, but they’re also important to understand. If you don’t drive correctly and follow the rules on smart motorways, you may not only put yourself and other road users in danger, but also potentially face a fine and points on your licence.

What are smart motorways?

Smart motorways, previously known as actively managed motorways, use technology including CCTV linked to regional control centres to smooth the traffic flow, reduce congestion and improve road safety.

One of the main ways they do this is by using varying speed limits across lanes, so motorists face less frustrating stop-start driving. The limits are shown on the gantry signs above each lane, so drivers must be vigilant and not just assume they can motor along at 70mph.

Another key feature is the use of the hard shoulder as an extra lane, either during busy times or to allow emergency vehicles through. The hard shoulder may even be used as a lane permanently on some smart motorways, which is known as ‘all-lane running’.

Look out for a red X sign showing when a lane is closed and can’t be used. Also look out for warning signs to alert you to traffic jams and hazards up ahead.

Some campaigners say having no hard shoulder puts motorists and recovery workers at risk. But Highways England, which operates all of England's motorways and major A roads, claims the refuge areas on smart motorways are safer than hard shoulders in an emergency.

Never drive in a lane closed by a red X

A red X shown on gantry signs above each lane indicates that a lane is closed to traffic.

Research published by the RAC in March 2019 showed that nearly a quarter (23%) of motorists ignore the red X signs on smart motorways. However, this is both dangerous and illegal.

Under new rules introduced in June this year, you could receive a fixed penalty of up to £100 and three points for driving in a lane with a red X sign.

What to do if your car breaks down on a smart motorway

Normally, in an emergency on the motorway, if you’re unable to leave at the next exit or pull into a service area, you’d pull on to the hard shoulder. 

If the hard shoulder on a smart motorway is being used as an extra lane, then you must pull into one of the emergency areas. These are marked with blue signs with an orange SOS telephone symbol. You can then call Highways England, either using the emergency telephone or by dialling 0300 123 5000 on your mobile.

If you can’t get to an emergency area but your vehicle can be driven, move it to the hard shoulder (where available) or as close as possible to the verge or slip road.

More smart motorways planned

The first smart motorway, which opened on the M42 motorway in 2006, has been hailed a success by Highways England. It is estimated that journey reliability has since improved by 22%, and personal injury accidents have been reduced by more than half.

Building on this success, the government has plans to increase the network of smart motorways from 416 miles to 788 miles by 2025, and rename them as ‘digital roads’.

For more tips and guidance on staying safe on the roads, read more on Solved.