In part one of our series on smart motorways, we explained how smart motorways work and the technology behind now. In part 2, we go into the issues with them and what the UK government is doing about it.

Smart Motorways, the stretches of road that utilises the latest technology to regulate traffic flow, have been built to ease traffic congestion across the UK motorway system. However, these changes have often resulted in a key motorway safety feature – the hard shoulder.

So our smart motorways really as dangerous as what their critics suggest? And what, if anything, should be done about it?

What are the risks of smart motorways?

The removal of a permanent hard shoulder has been linked to deaths on smart motorways in recent years. In 2019 during an interview, the government told BBC Panorama that 38 people had died on smart motorways since they were introduced in 2014.

The government have faced growing criticism on this subject. The removal of the hard shoulder has led to motorists being trapped in a ‘live’ lane by speeding traffic in the event of a breakdown or other emergency.

This has led to a five-year pause in the rollout of further smart motorways whilst the Government reviews the current situation.

A recent YouGov Poll has highlighted the concerns that motorists have with the rollout of Smart Motorways. A shocking 64% of people asked thought that they were less safe than motorways with hard shoulders. That figure rose to an astonishing 82% amongst people over 65.

What is the UK Government doing about it?

The UK government is pausing the smart motorway rollout for five years to allow them to gather more safety data on the existing stretches of smart motorways that have already been built.

Highways England will also be investing close to one billion pounds to improve safety on the stretches of smart motorways that have already been built. Of that, £390 million will be used to add more emergency refuge areas.

This investment should lead to a 50% increase in areas to stop on smart motorways by 2025.

The Government plans on making a decision on smart motorways once all the data has been assessed.

Why were smart motorways originally introduced?

Traffic congestion is a growing problem in the UK that smart motorways aim to tackle.

Widening motorway sections is an expensive undertaking. Smart motorways offer a cheaper solution by using a feature that is already built – the hard shoulder.

What is a smart motorway?

Smart Motorways are a stretch of motorway that uses the latest in traffic flow technology. To control traffic flow with the ultimate aim of easing congestion on the roads of the UK.

By utilizing the latest developments in Tech, Smart motorways can actively manage congestion on the motorway and optimise how the Motorway is used by road users.

Smart Motorways were as developed by Highways England to manage Britain’s congested roads to minimise the environmental impact and cost of building additional lanes.

The methods used include using the hard shoulder as an extra lane for traffic and introducing variable speed limits to control traffic flow on motorways. 


How do Smart Motorways work?

With many miles of smart motorways already built in the UK, it’s imperative that motorists understand how they work and how to use them.

The main type of Smart Motorway  in the UK is what is referred to as ‘All Lane running’

This refers to when the hard shoulder is removed and converted into a running lane. In these instances, the left-hand lane, which was the hard shoulder, is only closed to traffic in the event of an accident on the motorway.

If more lanes of the motorway are required to be closed, they will be marked by a red x on an overhead gantry. This signals that you must exit the lane as soon as possible.

Ignoring the ‘red X’ sign is extremely dangerous and is against the law. 

The signage is also used to show the speed limit, which is variable depending on traffic and road conditions. If a speed limit is not displayed, the national speed limit will be in place. 

The speed limits are enforced with speed cameras. If the speed is reduced, there is a slight lag between when the speed limit is updated and when the speed cameras will begin to enforce the new speed limit. A specific time for this to happen isn’t given for each camera, but it can happen in as little as ten seconds.

Smart Motorways rely on CCTV to monitor traffic for any incidents. 

In the event of a breakdown or accident, motorists can use the Emergency Refuge Areas (ERAs), that are situated on the left side of the motorway. The average spacing of these ERAs is 1.5 miles apart. 

What are the benefits of Smart Motorways?

According to Highways England, the stats show that since the first smart motorway opened in 2006 journey reliability has improved by 22% and personal injuries have reduced by more than half.

However, many motorists still feel unsafe on smart motorways.


What are the issues with Smart Motorways?

Many UK motorists are concerned that smart motorways are far more dangerous than the traditional motorway setup, because of the lack of a hard shoulder.

Campaign groups have been drumming up support to improve safety on ‘all running smart motorways sections where the hard shoulder is turned into a permanent lane.

To counteract this criticism, Highways England has run UK wide campaigns to educate drivers on how they should use smart motorways. 




The UK Transport Secretary Grant confirmed rolling out smart motorways has been suspended, due to serious safety concerns. Smart motorways remove the hard shoulder in times of busy traffic to allow ALR, all lanes running. A number of MPs have called for smart motorways to be scrapped, because of a number of motoring incidents and driver deaths.

“Five people have died in 10 months on a 16 mile stretch of the M1 in South Yorkshire operating ‘all lanes running’ (ALR) – when there is no hard shoulder.” – BBC News

MP for Rotherham Sarah Champion said, “The safety of motorists must always be paramount… it is totally unacceptable to risk lives in the name of cost savings”. Jason Mercer was involved in a tragic accident, he died after being hit by a lorry following a minor crash on the M1.

“A further investigation has uncovered that 38 people have people have been killed on smart motorways in the past five years.” – The Guardian

Smart motorways pose further issues for breakdown companies. Depending on whether a lane is open or closed, this can prevent a motorway rescue vehicle being able to reach any broken down vehicle. It appears that motorists can find themselves trapped in these lanes.

Areas of smart motorway in construction have been put on hold. Critics slammed the system for not spotting broken down vehicles, not having enough laybys available and causing fatal accidents. Incidents have previously occurred when a vehicle has broken down. In these cases, the additional lane has been opened to allow traffic to pass. Essentially removing the hard shoulder and with it any protection for broken down vehicles. The AA confirmed that they will not provide roadside assistance on smart motorways due to these serious safety concerns. This adds to the many reasons why a change needs to happen.

Grant Shapps said in the House of Commons, “The stretch of the M20 and all other stretches that are currently being worked on will not be opened until we have the outcome of the stocktake”.

The entire smart motorway system could be removed. Unless it can be proven that the safety issues have been addressed and resolved. Four areas of smart motorways were due to open across the M6, M23 and M62 throughout 2020. This is on hold whilst a decision is made.

We would like to see a change to smart motorways across all existing roads. Ensuring maximum safety of drivers and passengers.