Smart motorways are becoming increasingly commonplace throughout England. Yet, some drivers are still unsure how to drive on them. Below is a simple guide to driving safely on smart motorways, including when the hard shoulder can – and cannot – be used.

What is a smart motorway?
A smart motorway makes use of technology to manage the flow of traffic. The technology is controlled from a regional traffic control centre, where traffic is continuously monitored. Signs and speed limits are activated and updated from the control centre to help keep traffic flowing freely.

How should I drive on a smart motorway?
The same as you would on a regular motorway – but take notice of overhead signs which indicate whether any lanes are closed or if there are any changes to the speed limit.

The national speed limit applies if no other speed limit is displayed. A speed limit displayed inside a red circle is legally enforceable. If you don’t obey it, you are breaking the law. Speed cameras are in operation on smart motorways, so you are likely to receive a fine if you exceed the speed limit.

On some smart motorways, the hard shoulder is opened to traffic at busy times. The hard shoulder is only open for use if you can see a speed limit displayed over it. If there is no sign, or a red X is displayed, the usual hard shoulder rules apply (emergency use only).

A hard shoulder can be clearly identified by a solid white unbroken line on the road surface. Note that on some types of smart motorway, the hard shoulder is permanently used as an extra lane. If this is the case, the lane is marked with a broken white lane on the road surface; the same as every other lane.

The red ‘X’
This is one of the most important signs to look out for on a smart motorway as it indicates that a lane is closed. If a red ‘X’ is displayed above a lane you are using, move out of it as soon as it is safe to do so. You may receive a fine if you don’t. A lane can be closed for many reasons – even if you can’t see the cause of the closure. There might be debris in the road, a collision ahead, or the control centre could be keeping the lane clear for an emergency services vehicle to pass.

Breaking down on a smart motorway
Keeping your vehicle well maintained and making sure it has enough fuel will help to prevent breakdowns. But, if your vehicle does experience difficulties, you should try to exit a smart motorway immediately. If this is not possible, move to the nearest place of safety. On a smart motorway that has the hard shoulder open to traffic, emergency refuge areas (marked with blue signs featuring an orange SOS telephone on them) are spaced regularly along the motorway. Make your way to the nearest one, put on your vehicle’s hazard lights and contact Highways England using the roadside emergency telephone. Once the control centre is aware of your situation they will use the smart motorway technology to set overhead signs and help keep traffic away from your vehicle.

Smart motorway driving tips:

  • Never drive in a lane with a red ‘X’ displayed overhead
  • Keep to the marked speed limit
  • A solid white line indicates the hard shoulder – only use if there is a speed limit sign above the lane
  • A broken white line indicates a normal running lane
  • Use an emergency refuge area to contact Highways England in the event of a breakdown

The following Highways England documents provide more information about using smart motorways:

When to use a hard shoulder
Making motorways smarter