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Smart Motorways

Smart motorways are motorways that use technology to improve journeys and help ease congestion. They do this by allowing Highways England to adjust the speed limit as appropriate  and to close and open lanes, including the hard shoulder, to traffic.

The design of Smart motorways includes controlled motorways, sections of motorway where the hard shoulder is open to traffic at peak times and during congestion and where the hard shoulder is fully converted to a permanent running lane. The first Smart motorway came into operation on the M42 between junctions 4 and 7 in 2006. Since then Smart motorways have been delivered on the M1 between junctions 10 to 13, the M4/M5 near Bristol, the M62 in Yorkshire and on the M25 and M6 in the Midlands. A number of sections of  Smart motorways will also be installed on other motorways in the near future.


How to Use a Smart Motorway

Smart motorways have certain important features and it is essential that you recognise them and understand how they work


Red X

Smart motorways allow Highways England to quickly and easily close a lane to traffic. This is achieved by setting the sign overhead  the lane to be closed to display a red X symbol.

If you see a red X sign displayed then you MUST NOT use that lane. There may be an incident or broken down vehicle up ahead. Please note that driving under a red X sign is illegal and you could be prosecuted.


Hard Shoulder

Smart motorways can make use of the hard shoulder as an extra lane to help create more capacity on the motorway

 On some sections of motorways there is in fact no hard shoulder, which means that all lanes are available for traffic to use

  • on these sections there will be a broken white line between each lane, indicating that all lanes have the same status
  • refuge areas are available for emergency use


In other areas the hard shoulder can be opened to traffic when things get busy

  • there will be a solid white line on the road showing that it is a hard shoulder
  • overhead signs will tell you when the hard shoulder is available for use
  • a variable speed limit will be in force to help manage traffic flow


You MUST NOT use the hard shoulder if the signs over it are blank or display a red X, except to stop in an emergency. Please remember that when the hard shoulder is not in use as a running lane that there may be maintenance workers, breakdown/recovery operators or members of the Emergency Services using it.


Speed Limits

Smart motorways allow Highways England to adjust the speed limit on a motorway during busy periods. This controls the flow of vehicles and helps to prevent traffic grinding to a halt.

  • the current speed limit is displayed on overhead signs
  • a computer system calculates the most appropriate speed limit based on the volume of traffic
  • traffic loops are built into the road surface in order to detect slow-moving or stationary traffic and these alert the Highways Agency Control Centres to the changing conditions


Driver Information Signs

Highways England use the overhead driver information signs to :-

  • warn drivers about queuing traffic ahead and any speed limits in force so that they can take preventative action by slowing down
  • display a variety of information to help control speeds and to manage the traffic when the motorway is busy
  • provide information to individual traffic lanes, for example allowing the Highways England Control Centre operators to divert traffic and close lanes in the event of an incident



CCTV cameras assist the Highways England Control Centres and the Emergency Services by allowing them to know what is happening on the motorways at all times.

  • in the event of an incident or congestion, traffic lanes can be closed, speed restrictions set and appropriate organisations can be deployed to the scene to assist
  • in areas where the hard shoulder can be opened when it is busy, CCTV will allow the Highways England Control Centre operators to very quickly increase capacity on the motorway
  • the Highways England Control Centre operators will use CCTV to check that the hard shoulder is clear of any obstructions before opening it to traffic


Breaking Down on a Smart Motorway

If your vehicle develops a problem on a Smart motorway then if possible try to leave the motorway at the next exit or pull off into a motorway service area.

If this is not possible then try to stop in an emergency refuge area if one is available. Refuge areas have an emergency telephone that links directly to a Highways England Control Centre. Using the emergency telephone lets the Highways England Control Centre staff know exactly where you are. They can give you any advice that you need, contact your breakdown service and also alert the Highways England traffic officers or Emergency Services as appropriate.

If you cannot reach a refuge area then :-

  • if it is safe to do so, get your vehicle off the carriageway. Use the hard shoulder if it is not open to traffic or move your vehicle onto the verge.
  •  put your hazard lights on
  •  exit your vehicle  by the left hand doors if it is safe to do so and wait away from your vehicle behind the barrier if possible


If you have no choice but to stop in a live traffic lane then :-

  • put your hazard warning lights on to help other drivers see you and to also help the Highways England Control Centre staff to spot you on CCTV
  • if you are in the left hand lane and it is safe to do so, exit your vehicle via the left hand doors and wait away from your vehicle behind the barrier if possible
  • if you cannot exit your vehicle, do not feel that it is safe to do so or there is no other place of relative safety, then remain in your vehicle. Keep your seat belt on and if you have access to a working mobile phone dial '999'

As soon as Highways England are alerted they will use the motorway signs and signals to close traffic lanes in order to protect your vehicle until help arrives. They may also close traffic lanes to allow access for Emergency Service vehicles.


For more information regarding smart motorways please visit Highways England web site at