The safety record of smart motorways has come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks – so it’s perhaps even more important for learner drivers to understand how they operate.

Smart motorways were first introduced in 2006 and use variable speed limits to manage traffic and tackle stop-start congestion.

There are two types of smart motorway currently in operation in the UK. The first, often referred to as ‘dynamic’, is where the hard shoulder is opened to traffic during busy periods. The second is where the hard shoulder is open all the time.

Gantry signs display a ‘Red X’ when a lane is closed – usually as a result of a vehicle breakdown or in the event of a collision.

Most of the controversy surrounding smart motorways relates to safety – with figures showing 38 people have been killed on such roads in the last five years.

Moving forward, the Government looks set to scrap dynamic smart motorways – with confirmation expected imminently, following a safety review.

The review will also focus on measures to improve the safety of conventional smart motorways, including: 

  • Rolling out RADAR – a vehicle detection system which can spot stranded vehicles as soon as drivers break down.
  • Reducing the distance between emergency refuge areas.

Highways England has always maintained that smart motorways are as safe as the wider motorway network.

The Government agency provides the following tips for drivers:

  • 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
  • Most breakdowns are preventable – keep your car well maintained, check your tyres and make sure you have enough fuel for your journey

To read the Government’s guidance on how to drive on a smart motorway click here

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