Smart Motorways – smart or dumb?

Money makes the world go around.   Money also impacts your safety.   The UK may have some of the safest roads in the world, but this should not detract from the fact that replacing a key safety feature of motorways, namely, the hard shoulder with an emergency refuge area (ERA) on Smart Motorways up to one and a half miles from you must be considered one of the dumbest ideas which has been given the green light by Government.

Smart motorways have had a lot of press coverage as the penny drops on the horror you could face if your car breaks down in a live lane.   There have been a number of highly publicised deaths of people who might have lived had there been a hard shoulder. 

The first Smart motorway appeared in 2006 on the M42, and since then, the total amount of Smart motorway in Great Britain has increased to nearly 500 miles of the total 2,300 miles, accounting for nearly 22% of the network.  Currently all Smart motorways are in England.   Plans to expand the amount to 800 miles by 2025 are still on the table.

Interestingly, research has shown that the Smart motorway will flow faster for the first year as the improved capacity is still operating on the original amount of traffic.   However, the benefits disappear thereafter as more people choose the motorway over other routes.   This leads to the question of why bother removing the hard shoulder to increase capacity if there are no long term benefits and only increased safety risks and environmental concerns?

So Where Are The Smart Motorways?

A map showing the current Smart motorways, including those under construction is linked below.

Smart Motorways UK | Smart Motorway Map (

So What Are The Risks I Need To Know About?

  1. Only 5% of the Smart motorway network has the new Stopped Vehicle Detection systems (SVD systems) fitted meaning, that if you break down on a section of Smart motorway, the likelihood is it will be some time before anyone is notified of your difficulties and the safety system kicks in.   Currently it is taking Highways England nearly 20 minutes to identify a breakdown on CCTV and there are reportedly on average 30 daily breakdowns on Smart motorways.
  2. In 2015, in a six day trial on an eight mile section of the M25, the SVD system only identified 65% of incidents.  This is far below Highways England’s target of 80% which still seems quite low, given 1 in 5 incidents could remain undetected.  Without the detection system working or even fitted, you remain at the mercy of the gods if you happen to break down on a stretch of Smart Motorway.  
  3. On some stretches of Smart motorways, the Emergency areas are up to 1.5 miles apart requiring you to coast for some distance assuming your car has enough speed in order to reach safety.
  4. You are also at risk if someone else breaks down and cannot reach an emergency refuge.  Is this another reason why the slow lane is often the clearest on a motorway, in addition to the ‘pile on’ of traffic at each junction.
  5. If you have a physical disability and have trouble getting in and out of cars, you are at an even greater risk if you break down in a live lane, and you are not be able to get out of the vehicle safely.  Disability Rights UK has highlighted the breach of the Equality Act.  Smart motorways clearly discriminate against wheelchair users if they fail to reach an ERA. [link to disability rights uk page on smart motorway legal challenge]
  6. Emergency vehicles no longer have a fast route to a crash site down the hard shoulder until lane one is shut.  However where do the cars in lane one go if the motorway has gridlocked?  
Smart Motorway controlled section of M25
Controlled Motorway – M25

How Do I Mitigate My Risk on Smart Motorways?

Learn the differences between the types of motorway (controlled, all lane running, dynamic hard shoulder, conventional) and how to drive on them  

Never drive in a lane marked with a ‘red X’

Learn what you need to do if you break down on a Smart motorway

Smart Motorway Controlled section of M25
Controlled Motorway – M25

Are There Any Positives to Smart Motorways?

The risk of collision between two moving vehicles has reduced as a result of the controlled variable speed limits, meaning that traffic flow is smoothed and decreased the number of instances of sudden ‘stop start’ that used to happen on busy motorways when a bottle neck of traffic occurs. 

Better signage warns drivers of incidents and hazards ahead.

On stretches of controlled motorway, there has been a decrease in the amount of speeding, tailgating and fewer rapid changes of speed between lanes.

The ERAs are safer than the original hard shoulder if you manage to reach one.  One in 12 fatalities occur on the hard shoulder of conventional motorways.

However until the whole system is fitted with the SVD system and more ERAs, the risk of death or serious injury still remains high for those who breakdown in a live lane.  On 20 April 2021 in a written statement, Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary has vowed to ensure that all ALR motorways are fitted with SVD by September 2022 which is six months earlier than the original target.   He also intends to upgrade the camera technology ensure that more people drive only in the operational lanes and catch and fine those driving in a Red X lane.

Weird Fact

Now I did not think I would be able to come up with a weird fact about Smart motorways.  However, ALLEGEDLY, the M6 motorway is one of the most haunted roads in the UK with numerous ghost sightings!  These range from marching Roman Soldiers, a terrified lone female hitchhiker, and the ghost of a lorry travelling in the wrong direction.  Something to look out for when you next play ‘I spy’ on the M6.


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