In the last decade there have been huge changes on some of England's busiest motorways. Where once you could rely on three lanes and a hard shoulder, now there are countless new electronic signs, road markings and rules.
These schemes have gone by various names in the past but now the Highways Agency refers to them all as "Smart Motorways". This page explains what they are.
What are Smart Motorways?
Any section of motorway that has been upgraded with new technology — electronic signs, intensive CCTV monitoring, enforcement cameras and so on — is now considered a "Smart Motorway", regardless of the different ways in which these schemes operate across the country. This work is done to help reduce congestion and keep traffic moving.
A rose by any other name...
There have been many names for the various control systems that have been installed on English motorways since the early 1990s. These are just a few of the terms you may have come across before.
- Variable Speed Limits were introduced on the M25 in 1995.
- Ramp Metering has been on use on the M6 in the West Midlands for about 20 years and was trialled in further locations nationwide in the early 2000s.
- Active Traffic Management was the name of the pilot scheme operated on the M42 incorporating Variable Speed Limits, Ramp Metering and other new ideas.
- Controlled Motorways was used for a short time to refer to ATM schemes and is still sometimes used in reference to areas where Variable Speed Limits operate.
- Managed Motorways referred to ATM schemes for several years.
- Smart Motorways was adopted in 2013 as the name for all ATM and variable speed limit schemes of any kind, so that every system that uses increased technology to improve traffic flow now operates under this name.
What might I see on a Smart Motorway?
Overhead control signals
On any type of Smart Motorway, the ability to relay information to motorists is vital, and this is almost always done using overhead signals mounted on gantries spanning the road. These are often very frequent.
Variable speed limits are a feature of all Smart Motorway schemes. They are used to reduce congestion by reducing the speed limit in order to prevent stop-start traffic jams. By slowing traffic they also increase the capacity of the road, because slower vehicles travel more closely together, making better use of the available road space.
All variable speed limits are enforced by digital speed cameras mounted over every traffic lane.
Part time hard shoulder running
This tends to happen on sections of motorways that are so busy — and so frequently overloaded or congested — that hard shoulder running would be necessary for most or all of the day. In these circumstances it's considered simpler and easier to just use the hard shoulder as an extra lane all the time and avoid the need to make such heavy use of the electronic signalling.
ALR is, arguably, a way of widening a motorway without having to actually widen it, and instead just settling for an increase in width at the expense of the standard of the road.
Almost all Smart Motorway schemes will also require the installation of signal gantries — which at a minimum will require a closure of the motorway to lift the overhead beams into place. The construction of supports and foundations often involves lane closures and other roadworks that affect traffic. Depending on their location and the work needed to make space for them, Emergency Refuge Areas can also require considerable work and disruption.
If hard shoulder running will feature, it's usually the case that there needs to be work to strengthen the hard shoulder so that it can carry a full traffic load. In many places the hard shoulder was originally built on a shallower foundation than the main carriageway, and stripping the surface away to reconstruct its foundation can mean months of lane closures and traffic restrictions.
Some Smart Motorway schemes have taken years to install — far longer than the work above could explain. This is where the installation of the Smart Motorway infrastructure has happened when the motorway was already due for major maintenance work. In these cases, the Smart Motorway scheme might be combined with full-depth carriageway reconstruction, in which the whole road surface and road bed of the entire motorway is stripped away to its foundation and rebuilt again. This work can take years. Very often, Smart Motorways also come with the removal of the existing central reservation and its replacement with new drainage channels and continuous concrete barrier.
Why is the near 20-mile stretch of the M6 in Staffordshire taking so long to upgrade? I believe it will take over two years to complete having been worked on for at least a year so far!
I regularly travel the M3 "Smart" motorway section and find the "emergency" areas a joke! So my cars engine dies or I get a blow out where the hell do i stop if not next to an emergency area? There will be a serious accident without the hard shoulder and perhaps then they will realise the "Smart " motorway is not that smart after all!!!
That's why hard shoulders shouldn't be removed!
There are lots of emergency refuge areas but if you have to stop in lane 1 there is 100% pan-tilt-zoom CCTV and RADAR technology to immediately alert the Regional Control Center. Before you can get hit, and before you know it, a red X will appear in your lane and traffic will stay away from you.
Having driven down the M42 a few years ago, finding a breakdown on the hard shoulder (which was open to traffic at the time) I have to say this does not appear to happen as quickly as necessary on some occasions.
I like the additional capacity that Smart Motorways generally bring, but I'm yet to be convinced that the safety levels of a 3-lane Smart Motorway with hard-shoulder-running are equal to a classic 4-lane motorway.
It takes up to 20 mins for you to be noticed . They are so dangerous
As of January 2020 I believe that the current estimate is another three years before all "smart" motorways will have such technology up and running, and that average response times to lane 1 breakdowns is 17 minutes.
The reason they take so long is that there seem to be long periods of time when no-one is apparently constructing anything at all! Other civil engineering projects can be speeded up - see Birmingham New Street Station where people worked all the time. I have heard it said that Civil Engineering Projects can be Good Quick and Cheap - as long as you settle for two out of three!! If you want it cheap then in takes an age or it will break down next week.
There's a minor mistake in the first picture of "Overhead control signals". The "hollow red X" symbol that you show there is used on hard shoulders while they're functioning as a hard shoulder, so it's very weird seeing it on the rightmost lane. Based on context, I assume it's meant to be a closed lane, rather than a hard shoulder; in this case, the X would have a solid centre (i.e. no small diamond of the background colour in the centre), and also be surrounded by flashing red lights (IIRC, red lights for a lane closure flash from side to side, so that even people who have difficulty distinguishing colours can tell them apart at long distance from the more common amber lights, which flash up and down).
It amazes me how they can get away with calling them managed motorways.
The more appropriate term would be mismanaged motorways. I travel the M5 and M6 daily and I can tell you with 100% accuracy the speed limit before I leave my house because they are always set at the same limit despite what the traffic is doing. The favourite is 60 mph then down to 40 mph for 2 gantries and then back to 60. Not bad when the motorway is clear and nothing is happening to have any speed restrictions in place (junction 10 up to the M54)
This obviously is the definition of "manged motorways"
I don't think Smart motorways are all that they are cracked up to be.
I have noticed that they are cutting corners. For example, The smart motorway around Leeds the gantry's look quality. The new gantry's around Manchester look cheap and nasty.
I think they just reused the old ones.
I travel almost daily on the M25 Smart section between junctions 6 & 7. The number of times I've seen a broken down car or lorry on the inside lane stopped & people ignoring the smart signs & almost crashing into the back of the stranded vehicle is ludicrously high.
The number of times the gantries post "40" when the traffic is flowing freely & moving without incident is also notable.
I think your first frustration is answered by your second. I find that the signage just cannot be trusted: “accident”, “congestion”, “debris in road”, “stranded vehicle” and, like you say, dubious speed limit reductions stragically placed on a speed camera sites all lead to distrust.
Who manufactures the large digital Smart Motorway signs?
Without a hard shoulder, how does a vehicle build up enough speed to rejoin the running lanes safely - especially a large lorry (which wouldn't fit most of the little refuges anyway)?
The same way it would on any other road without a hard shoulder - such as from an A-road lay-by?
In most cases an HGV that has had to make an emergency stop in a refuge area on a Smart Motorway will do so with the assistance of traffic officers and with lane 1 closed by the electronic signals - in theory, at least.
How can you call them smart motorways when they are using concrete central reservations which when you have an accident all the cars behind it could be trapped and unable to pass and depending on the Police investigation could close the motorway for days. You cannot use a contraflow system even if you only want to repair the motorway this cannot help to keep traffic flowing.
Concrete central reservations have removable sections at regular intervals that can be used to release traffic trapped after an accident or to set up contraflows.
The gantry sign showing a large orange ball with a black line running across it from bottom right to top left is telling drivers what.
National Speed Limit, just like the sign of the same design.
Are lorries allowed in all 3 lanes of a 4 lane smart motorway?
Interesting comments from Highways England Chief Executive about Smart motorways are "too complicated for people to use"
Without being political have HE only just realised that these "Smart motorways" are just NOT safe.
I cannot believe why in this modern time on existing M4 takes 2.5 years to convert to Smart Motorways from junction 13 to 3. It so frustrating to drive this M4 every day for 2.5 years on 50mph and to see how slow the progress are. There are no reason for snail pace progress in relation to fast pace pay checks of over 100k a year from 8 to over 60 executives. If one can employed more qualified executives with exorbitant pay them one expect the motorway to complete quicker than 2.5 years.
The M4 scheme involves reconstruction of bridges over and under the motorway, excavating the former hard shoulder out to the bottom of the road bed and rebuilding it, reconstructing the whole of the central reservation, installing a reinforced concrete barrier and numerous other changes to earthworks, drainage, pavement and technology. Those things cannot all be done at once while maintaining six lanes of moving traffic. So while I'm sympathetic to anyone who has to spend nearly three years driving through extensive road works at reduced speed, I can't agree that the deciding factor on the duration of the work is how many senior managers receive big pay checks.
You can only do so much work at a time on a road that is open to traffic. The alternatives are to reduce the number of lanes open to traffic to increase the amount of space there is in which to work, which will cause chronic congestion, or to close the motorway altogether, which will be even worse, or to not do the work at all. You can employ as many or as few high-paid executives as you like but those plain facts do not change.
Could this be the end of Smart Motorways? Or at least a curtailment. Some worrying statistics and a Government Minister comments.
Official All Parliamentary report available here;
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With thanks to Toby Speight for information on this page.