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How to Drive on a Smart Motorway

There are several different types of smart motorways used in the United Kingdom. So, understanding how a smart motorway works is essential reading for most motorists.

Information, guidelines, and tips in this section explain how to drive in a safe manner and stay legal while driving on smart motorways.

What is a Smart Motorway in England, UK?

One of the roles of Highways England is reducing congestion on the motorway network across the United Kingdom.

They use technology to monitor traffic levels and to help them manage smooth flowing traffic at peak times.

Highways England regulate the technology from regional control centres. It allows them to activate, and change, traffic signs and variable speed limits.

They can also open a hard shoulder on busier sections of some motorways. It can be a temporary procedure or they can convert the hard shoulder to a permanent extra lane.

The aim of smart motorways?

Doing so, allows a higher volume of vehicles to travel through the network. It also avoids the disruption (and the expense) of widening the original roadway.

So, what enhancements will motorists see when they use these technology-enabled sections of motorways? The typical devices used to improve traffic flow on managed motorways, includes:

  • Electronic message signs that can display Red X signs and variable speed limits.
  • Sensors to help monitor traffic volumes.
  • Video surveillance (e.g. CCTV and fixed speed cameras).
  • Emergency areas that have emergency roadside telephones available.

Tips for Using Smart Motorways
  • Never drive on a motorway lane if a bright Red X ‘lifesaver’ sign shows it as closed.
  • Always keep within the speed limits shown on motorway gantries (overhead signage) or on traffic signs.
  • A broken white line is used to indicate a normal running lane.
  • A solid white unbroken line indicates that it is a hard shoulder. So, you should only use it in an emergency situation.
  • Use a designated emergency area (if the hard shoulder is already being used as an extra lane).
  • There are ways to prevent most types of vehicle breakdowns. The Highway Code guide explains the basic roadworthy vehicle checks before driving on a journey.
  • Try to exit the motorway as soon as possible if you experience difficulties with your vehicle (e.g. it displays a warning light). Always use the vehicle hazard lights if it breaks down.

Important: A different section explains the correct steps to follow if you break down on a smart motorway.

Red X ‘Lifesaver’ Sign

A Red X sign lit up above any lane on a smart motorway is a warning of an obstruction. It indicates that the lane is closed to traffic.

Drivers must exit the lane without delay and stay out of any lane displaying a Red X ‘lifesaver’ sign, because:

  • There may be an accident or incident blocking the road in front of you.
  • There may be people working on the carriageway ahead (e.g. the Automobile Association).
  • Highways England may need to keep the lane clear to provide unhindered access for maintenance or for the emergency services.

As a rule, they will display a Red X on gantry signage situated above each lane. But, in some cases you may also see them on large signs located above the left hand (nearside) of the carriageway.

Driving or riding a vehicle in a lane closed by a Red X ‘lifesaver’ sign is illegal in the United Kingdom. The penalty for driving in a Red X lane is three (3) points and a fixed penalty of up to £100.

Smart Motorway Red X Fine

AA research suggests that around 5% of motorists have driven in a Red X lane – even when they see the signage. Close to 200,000 drivers have received warning letters from Highways England explaining how to drive on a smart motorway ‘safely and legally’.

New legislation, introduced in June 2019, means the punishments for ignoring the rules of the road now apply to offenders caught by traffic cameras.

The rule of never driving in a lane closed by a Red X sign is for your own safety – and for the safety of other road users.

In some cases, the police (or the authorities instructed by the police, such as Highways England traffic officers) may instruct you to use a Red X lane.

Note: The police enforce Red X offences. The most severe (e.g. breaking the law on variable speed limits) can result in a penalty up to £2,500 or a court appearance.

Using the Hard Shoulder on a Smart Motorway

It is easy to recognise hard shoulders on smart motorways. They are always identified by a solid white line (i.e. unbroken).

It is becoming more common for authorities to open up the hard shoulder for traffic use on the busiest sections of motorway networks. In this case, there will be a speed limit displayed above the hard shoulder lane.

As a rule, motorists should only use a hard shoulder for an emergency (if no sign is displayed above it). They only open a hard shoulder to traffic when it is safe to do so. Even so, always be vigilant and aware of any breakdowns or stationary vehicles that may be ahead of you.

You may also see some sections of the motorway hard shoulder converted into a permanent extra lane. You can identify these sections by specific road and lane markings (i.e. a broken white line).

Using Emergency Refuge Areas

There will be emergency areas spaced out at regular intervals on a smart motorway. A blue sign that feature an orange SOS telephone symbol will indicate an emergency refuge area.

It is best to try and get to an emergency area if you are having some difficulty with your vehicle. This also applies in situations when the hard shoulder is not open to normal traffic.

Note: Emergency refuge areas are set back some distance from the carriageway. They provide better protection than the hard shoulder. But, motorists should only use emergency areas on smart motorways in emergencies.

Using an Emergency Refuge Area on a Smart Motorway

Variable Speed Limits on Motorways

Highways England may vary the speed limit on certain sections of a motorway. The purpose is to help steady the flow of traffic and to help reduce the likelihood of ‘stop-start’ traffic jams.

You may find variable speed limits set at busy times and in conjunction with a Red X sign. They also use them to manage a road hazard or an incident.

In some cases, the ‘trigger’ used for variable speed limits on a smart motorway will happen by automatic process by sensors that are monitoring the traffic flow. They will appear lit up on overhead signs (displayed inside a red circle).

Important: Always follow the Highway Code motorway rules for speed limits if there is no variable speed limit displayed.

The speed limit relates to the maximum speed that you can drive according to the law and to the road conditions. Going over the national speed limits is breaking the law and can result in a fine.

You will find speed cameras in operation on most smart motorways. The police have the responsibility of enforcing speeding offences. Drivers should always drive to a safe speed, according to road and the weather conditions, and be aware of vehicle stopping distances.

Note: Highways England produce a short video clip that explains how to recognise variable speed limits and how they work.

How Smart Motorways Work in the United Kingdom