How to handle smart motorways

Here’s what you need to know about ‘all lane running’ motorways. Anyone who has spent time on the M25 or any other motorway of your choice will know that they’re getting seriously congested for more and more of the time. You have a three-lane motorway, and it’s full.

Adding another lane would be unbelievably expensive in terms of time and money and would be resisted on environmental grounds. So what can the authorities do? Well, there’s that hard shoulder sitting there with nobody in it. Let’s use that. That’s the thinking behind what are perhaps only semi-accurately called smart motorways. On the plus side you’ve just gained another whole lane with very little extra expense or environmental unpleasantness. On the minus side you’ve just stopped the hard shoulder being there in an emergency and you’ve introduced some potentially deadly confusion.

However, there are more than 20 stretches of smart motorway in England with more than that again either under construction or planned. So, it’s a ‘thing’ and we need to know how to deal with it. Which means we should first off define terms. Controlled motorway Like the western section of the M25, this is more like a normal motorway but cameras and signs can dictate the speed, which rises and falls according to the traffic flow. A regional traffic centre monitors and controls speed and traffic flow, and the hard shoulder remains for emergencies only. Hard shoulder running Junctions 7-9 of the M42 are examples of this. During peak periods the hard shoulder becomes a normal running lane. Gantries above indicate it’s open and what the speed limit is. If there is a red cross above that hard shoulder then it is closed to traffic except in an emergency. If you do have a problem then you should drive to one of the ERAs – Emergency Refuge Areas – which are at set intervals along the motorway. All lanes running Same as the hard shoulder running, but here it’s permanent. The hard shoulder is simply another running lane all the time, and if you have a problem you have to reach one of the ERAs. Is this a safe system? New stretches have ERAs up to 1.5 miles apart and that’s not a lot of use if you suffer a total blowout or your car simply dies through electronic gremlins. ERAs on earlier stretches were only 500-800m apart and that’s pretty reachable except in the worst of circumstances. There’s also the issue that emergency services have had to change the way they operate since they simply can’t come up the hard shoulder to get to the head of the queue and reach the accident, they have to stop the traffic and come down the motorway from the next ramp ahead.

From the driver’s point of view it’s important to remember to use the ERAs if you have an emergency, but you must not clog them up for anything less than a full-blooded emergency. Letting little Johnny out for a pee is not emergency enough. So the procedure if you have an emergency is to keep going if you can until you reach an ERA. This will be signposted with an orange SOS on a blue background. Once into the ERA switch on the hazard lights, get out of the car via the passenger door and use the phone to alert the control centre to your predicament. Keep behind the barrier until help arrives. If your car is roadworthy again, you must not leave the ERA until you have alerted the authorities. This is for your own safety since there isn’t enough room for you to get up to running speed before joining the motorway. The control centre will shut the hard shoulder section near you so you have the space to get safely back on the motorway.

And if you can’t make it to the ERA? Keep as far to the left as possible, park, put on hazards and lights and get out behind the barrier before contacting the emergency services and your breakdown cover provider. Another thing to bear in mind when running on a smart motorway is, if you see that the hard shoulder is blocked as a running lane, as indicated by a red X in the gantry above it, do not drive in it, and if you are in it move over as soon as is safe. There are plans to introduce fixed penalty fines for those who disobey the red X.