SMART motorways hit the headlines once again this week after a BBC investigation found 38 people had been killed on them in the past five years.

The BBC Panorama programme also found that on one of two converted sections of the M25, there were 1,485 near misses since the scheme was introduced.

In the five years before it was a smart motorway, there were only 72.

Now the Transport Secretary has announced no new smart motorways will be opened until a Government safety review is completed. 

Here we take a look at some of the key questions around smart motorways.

What is a smart motorway?

A smart motorway is a section of a motorway that uses traffic management methods to increase capacity and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas.

These methods include using the hard shoulder as a running lane and using variable speed limits to control the flow of traffic.

Highways England developed smart motorways to manage traffic in a way that minimises environmental impact, cost and time to construct by avoiding the need to build additional lanes.

Are smart motorways dangerous?

Many people are of the opinion that smart motorways are more dangerous than conventional motorways, because of the lack of a hard shoulder.

Seven-in-ten (68%) of those surveyed for the RAC Report on Motoring 2019 said they felt removing the hard shoulder on motorways compromises safety.

Highways England has run communication campaigns to educate drivers how to use smart motorways, includig the importance of always obeying red X signs.

Increasingly, Emergency Refuge Areas (ERAs) are also painted in orange to help drivers spot them, and there are more signs directing drivers to their next ERA.

But the RAC continues to argue for more changes to be made to smart motorways to make them as safe as possible, and to help ensure drivers feel safe when driving on them - especially on stretches of 'all lane running' smart motorway where the hard shoulder is removed for good.

What are the rules on smart motorways?

  • Never drive in a lane closed by a Red X.
  • Keep to the speed limits shown on the signs.
  • A hard shoulder is always identified by a solid white unbroken line - if there’s no speed limit displayed above it or a Red X is displayed, do not use it except in emergency.
  • A broken white line indicates a normal running lane.
  • If the hard shoulder is being used as an extra lane, use the designated emergency areas for emergencies.
  • If your vehicle experiences difficulties, eg warning light, exit the motorway immediately, if you can.
  • If you break down, put your hazard lights on.

What do I do if I break down on a smart motorway?

The RAC has the following advice:

Use an emergency refuge area (ERA) if you are able to reach one safely.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Increasingly, Emergency Refuge Areas (ERAs) are also painted in orange to help drivers spot them. Pic credit: RACIncreasingly, Emergency Refuge Areas (ERAs) are also painted in orange to help drivers spot them. Pic credit: RAC

If you are unable to reach the nearest ERA or exit your vehicle safely follow these steps:

  • If you cannot get to an emergency refuge area, you should try to move on to the verge if there is no safety barrier and it is safe to do so
  • In all cases, switch on your hazard warning lights
  • If you stop in the nearside lane, exit your vehicle via the nearside (left hand) door if it is safe to do so and wait behind the safety barrier, if there is one
  • Then contact Highways England via the roadside emergency telephone provided in all emergency refuge areas
  • If it is not possible to get to the nearside lane or exit your vehicle safely, then you should stay in your vehicle with your seat belt on and dial '999' if you have access to a mobile phone.

When the relevant highways authority becomes aware of a breakdown or an incident on a smart motorway they should switch on a ‘red cross' sign on the gantries above the lane you're in to stop traffic from entering it.

Does the RAC attend breakdowns on smart motorways?

Yes, but as all lanes of most smart motorways are used for traffic, either all or some of the time, the RAC has to work closely with Highways England for safety reasons in order to attend members who break down on them.

A spokesman added: "Drivers who break down and successfully reach emergency SOS refuge areas, which are currently spaced up to 1.6 miles apart, can be attended without any initial involvement from Highways England.

"However, for drivers who break down in a live running lane the RAC can only attend once Highways England has made the scene as safe as possible through the closure of lanes with the red X signs and the attendance of Highways England Traffic Officers or police officers to provide protection for both our patrols and customers."