What to expect when driving on a smart motorway

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By stefan armitage

Jun 20, 20225 mins

What to expect when driving on a smart motorway

This is a sponsored article in partnership with National Highways…

Did you know that smart motorways without a hard shoulder make up around 10 percent of the motorway network? That’s why it’s so important to be able to recognise their features and how they work together.

But what even is a smart motorway? And what should you expect to see and do differently when you find yourself driving along one?

Whether you’re planning a trip to the seaside or just driving home from uni, knowing the signs, signals and features of a smart motorway is sure to make your journey run smoother. Forget calling mum and dad in a fluster! With these tips and advice, you’ll be ready to stick on your favourite playlist, load up the boot, and head out on the summer road trip of dreams.

But first, a bit about smart motorways.

These state-of-the-art highways do all the same things as your basic road, but with high-tech features to help you get to your destination as conveniently and reliably as possible.

One of the main features to look out for is variable speed limits. Unlike regular motorways - which have fixed speed limits - the maximum speed you can drive on a smart motorway changes, to help keep traffic moving or if there is an incident ahead.

Credit: National Highways (Supplied)

Why is this so smart? Well, when sensors positioned along the motorway detect a queue forming or an incident up ahead, they can slow down approaching traffic to prevent the road from getting too congested.

As we all know, it’s no fun sitting in standstill traffic after a hard day’s work or a long weekend away - especially when all you want to do is get home. Variable speed limits are a smart way of helping to keep traffic moving.

Credit: Prostock-studio / Alamy

Another thing to look out for is whether you are on a motorway where drivers can use the hard shoulder as a regular lane. On some smart motorways the hard shoulder can be used at peak times – you’ll know if it’s open because there will be a speed limit displayed on the sign above the hard shoulder. If this sign is blank or if it shows a red X, you must not use it and could be fined.

On other smart motorways there is no hard shoulder, all lanes are open to traffic, unless there is a red X displayed. Driving in a lane with a red X is illegal, dangerous, and could very well result in a hefty fine - which is the last thing you want to come home to after a blow-out road trip with the girls. If only all red flags were so easy to spot, hey?

Check out more information in the video below:

And if your car runs into trouble while you’re driving on a smart motorway, don’t panic.

A sudden breakdown on a busy road can be a daunting experience, but the purpose-built emergency areas on smart motorways mean you’ll be better equipped to perfectly handle the situation and get the help you need.

On smart motorways you’ll find orange emergency areas set back from the carriageway which are specifically intended for drivers to pull over, and seek assistance.

Credit: National Highways (Supplied)

These areas have telephones linking directly to regional control rooms and are set back from the road at regular intervals, so there should be somewhere to stop approximately every mile.

If you get into trouble on a motorway, you should always stay calm and try to exit at the next junction or motorway service area. However, if you can’t make it to either of these places you can put your left indicator on and move into the left lane. On a smart motorway, you can move into the next emergency area.

Once you’ve reached a place of safety, put your hazard lights on and stay out of the way of moving traffic by getting behind a barrier if there is one. If you’re in an emergency area, contact National Highways through the roadside phone or give them a ring on 0300 123 5000.

You should also then call your breakdown provider for help. Whatever you do, don’t try to rejoin the traffic until you’ve been advised by National Highways on the best way to do so. National Highways can close the lane to help you rejoin the motorway safely. They can also set signs and warn approaching traffic that you’re about to exit an emergency area.

Credit: Pablo Benítez Lope / Alamy

In the event that you can’t reach a safer place because your vehicle has broken down in a live lane, or you feel your life is in danger, don’t panic. The best thing to do is stay in your vehicle with your seatbelts and hazard lights on, and call 999 immediately so they can send help your way.

Now that you know all about making the most of smart motorways, you can make your summer road trip as smooth as possible. The only things left to worry about are who’s in control of the music, stopping at services for toilet breaks, and who’s ordering what from the next drive-thru.

So grab your mates, buckle up, and hit the road!

For more information about Smart Motorways, visit

Featured Image Credit: Prostock-studio / Alamy


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