What is the Smart Motorway Network?
Highways England has confirmed how to use the Smart Motorway Network safely, and legally, throughout Easter 2017. Its systems enable operators to optimise the flow of traffic to minimise congestion. Speed limits, therefore, evolve and the hard shoulder sometimes serves as a running lane rather than an emergency refuge.
The Smart Motorway Network has overhead gantries that span its width. A Red X above (say) the inner lane confirms it is shut due to a hazard and/or to enable emergency services to make swift progress. Move out to avoid the hazard and a fine. Expect, therefore, to see a broken down vehicle, debris, person, or animal.
In an emergency
Highways England emphasised it is important to maintain your vehicle to minimise the risk of a breakdown. If, however, it lets you down exit at the nearest slip road. If this is impractical, recognise that the hard shoulder – the traditional place to stop - might be serving as the standard, non-emergency, left running lane.
Emergency Refuge Areas compensate and are spaced at regular intervals to the left of the hard shoulder. Look for a blue sign that reads Emergency Refuge Area (in white). Below, there is an orange square which surrounds a phone and SOS lettering (in black).
Once parked, contact Highways England via the emergency phone provided if it is safe to leave the vehicle. Ensure your hazard warning lights are on. The operator sends a traffic officer to assist you, or – if your issue has been resolved – uses signs to tell traffic to leave the inner lane so that you can rejoin safely.
If an Emergency Refuge Area cannot be reached, park on the emergency-only hard shoulder if it is available. If not, stop far left of the inner running lane. Either way, use hazard lights. Consider whether is it preferable to leave the car by its inner doors. It might, for example, be safer to stand behind the barrier.
If it is preferable or necessary to remain in the vehicle, ensure that your seatbelt is secure and call 999. When stopped in a vulnerable spot, Highways England might close the lane to keep traffic away from the scene. An officer might be sent to help, too.
The Smart Motorway Network speed limit is 70mph – unless indicated otherwise. At busy times, it might be lowered considerably to enable traffic to proceed at a consistent pace, rather than stop/start. Speed limit confirmation comes via electric signs and is enforced by safety cameras. You might be fined if you exceed it.
As is traditional, the hard shoulder is marked by a solid white line. Consider it an emergency lane only if part of the gantry immediately above shows a red X, or nothing. In contrast, if it states a speed limit it can be used as a normal inner running lane.
Furthermore, in some cases the hard shoulder has been replaced with a permanent, standard, running lane. Watch for a broken white line.
Highways England summarised its advice. It said:
- “Never drive in a lane closed by a red X
- Keep to the speed limit shown on the gantries
- A solid white line indicates the hard shoulder - don’t drive in it unless directed
- A broken white line indicates a normal running lane
- If your vehicle experiences difficulties, e.g. warning light, exit the smart motorway immediately if possible
- Use the refuge areas for emergencies if there’s no hard shoulder
- Put your hazard lights on if you break down”