A quick guide to smart motorways

Smart motorways are making the news more and more frequently in recent years, so it’s easy to forget that they’ve actually been around for well over a decade; the first one was opened all the way back in 2006, which means there’s a good chance you’ve driven on one already. The idea behind their inception is to ease congestion and traffic on the roads, helping to ease up on some of Britain’s heaviest chokepoints – good news for HGV drivers and fleet managers!

Safety is obviously a key concern when it comes to smart motorways, and since there’s still some confusion surrounding them, as experts in vehicle safety products we thought we’d explain some of your key questions in this quick guide.

What is a smart motorway and how does it work?

Essentially, a smart motorway uses dynamic traffic management methods to increase the capacity of the lanes, and reduce congestion in busy areas.

(Despite what some might assume, this is not an automated process – there’s still a great deal of human input involved, primarily through CCTV monitoring.)

Developed by Highways England, smart motorways use displays on overhead gantries to make drivers aware of any changes to speed limits. If these displays are blank, the national speed limit applies. They also use speed cameras to enforce these limits.

One of the key features of smart motorways, and one of the most confusing, is their conversion of the hard shoulder to a running lane.

This frees up an extra lane to ease traffic flow, but means drivers must make it to an Emergency Refuge Area if they break down.

There are three types of smart motorways: ARL, Controlled, and Dynamic Hard Shoulder.


  • ALR – Short for All Lane Running, this is where the hard shoulder is permanently used as a fourth lane, only being closed to traffic in the event of an incident. Instead of the hard shoulder, motorists instead need to use specially designed Emergency Refuge Areas to remove themselves from the road in the event of difficulty.


  • Controlled – This involves three or more lanes with variable speed limits, but retains a hard shoulder (which should still only be used in a genuine emergency).


  • Dynamic hard shoulder – This is the balanced option between the two previous ones, where the hard shoulder is used as a fourth lane only in particularly busy traffic.


Why are people’s concerns regarding smart motorways?

There is a view the reactive speed limits of smart motorways as a cynical government initiative, a way to unfairly catch drivers out. Although there are a number of speeding tickets issued every year, independent experts suspect this is partially because people find them confusing.

Another concern is closely related to this; because people fear being penalised, there’s a worry that when the overhead displays change, it will lead to drivers abruptly slamming on their brakes in order to avoid being caught out, which in turn may lead to accidents.

The removal of the hard shoulder is yet another factor causing confusion, with critics calling it incredibly risky.  Mechanical failures and breakdowns don’t always allow the drivers to get to the nearest Emergency Refuge Area.

In response, the RAC says it is working with Highways England to create more ERAs – the aim is to have one every 500 metres or so – so there is still some work to do.

What fines can you get on smart motorways?

All the normal rules and laws apply on smart motorways, but there are few things in particular to be aware of.


Exceeding the speed limit is inadvisable at the best of times (although, due to the weight and mass of HGVs, their drivers are generally a lot more cautious than many other commuters can be).

Speed limit enforcement on smart motorways, is monitored via frequently positioned speed cameras.

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Highways England have explicitly stated that if no special speed limit is in place and highlighted on the gantry displays, then the national speed limit still applies. Ignoring these limits could mean that individual drivers face fines of potentially up to £2500.  So be aware. 

Ignoring a Red X

We probably don’t need to go into a huge amount of detail about how dangerous this is. A red X means that the lane is blocked, usually by a broken-down vehicle, or another type of incident. Ignoring this, therefore, means that drivers risk a heavy collision and injury.

Penalties are manually enforced, and repeat offenders will face heavy fines, the option to go on a motorway awareness course, or depending on the severity of the offence can even losing their license.

The essentials to driving on a smart motorway

Since the evidence suggests that there is still a fair proportion of drivers who are confused by smart motorways, it’s important to bear these essentials in mind:

  • Never drive in a lane closed by a red X
  • Pay close attention to any speed adjustments displayed on overhead gantries
  • A solid white line indicates the hard shoulder, so avoid it unless directed
  • A broken white line indicates a normal running lane
  • Look out for Emergency Refuge Areas if there is no hard shoulder

Here at Vision Techniques, our ultimate goal is to ensure the total safety of all road users, whether they’re drivers, cyclists or pedestrians. We do this with a wide range of vehicle safety products, many of which have been developed by our own in-house experts. Just a quick glance at our case studies page can give you a fantastic idea of how many businesses we’ve helped already – you can browse them right here on our site, or give our friendly sales team a call on 08452 873 169.