Guidance

How to drive on a smart motorway

How to drive safely and legally on England's smart motorways.

A smart motorway uses technology to actively manage the flow of traffic. The technology is controlled from a regional traffic control centre. The control centres monitor traffic carefully and can activate and change signs and speed limits. This helps keep the traffic flowing freely.

Smart motorways increase the capacity of the road, without the expense and hassle of widening the road, by either temporarily or permanently opening the hard shoulder to traffic.

Highways England is responsible for smart motorways in England.

Quick tips

On a smart motorway:

  • 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, eg 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

Not driven on a smart motorway? View our drive-through simulation:

M25 J23-27 drive-through simulation - all lane running

A brief overview of smart motorways:

Smart motorway: a brief overview

Red X

Never drive under a red x

One of the most important signs to get to know on a smart motorway is the red X. This indicates that a lane is closed.

If you see a red X closing a lane, move out of that lane promptly. If you don’t, you may receive a fine.

A lane might be closed because there is debris in the road, or because of a person or animal on the road. There may be an accident or a breakdown up ahead. We may be keeping the lane clear for the emergency services, such as an ambulance.

So for your own safety and the safety of others, never drive in a lane closed by a red X.

What does a red X mean? Get smart, know your motorways

Driving safely when you see a red X sign

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In an emergency

Prevention is better than cure: keep your car well maintained, check your tyres and make sure you have enough fuel for your journey. All motorists should be able to make their own recovery arrangements in the event of a breakdown. We advise that you have breakdown cover and carry details of this with you.

Always try to exit the smart motorway immediately if your vehicle is damaged or experiences difficulties. If that’s not possible, move into the nearest place of relative safety.

On most motorways this will be the hard shoulder. But on a smart motorway there may not always be a hard shoulder, or the hard shoulder may be open to traffic.

In these cases you’ll see emergency refuge areas (ERA) spaced regularly along the motorway. Make your way to the nearest one.

You should follow these steps:

  1. Use an emergency refuge area if you are able to reach one safely. These are marked with blue signs featuring an orange SOS telephone symbol on them.
  2. If you can leave your vehicle safely, contact Highways England via the roadside emergency telephone provided in all emergency refuge areas. We will either send a traffic officer to help you, or set the motorway signs to temporarily clear lane 1 to assist you to rejoin the motorway.
  3. If you cannot get to an emergency refuge area but the vehicle can be driven, move it to the hard shoulder (where provided) or as close to the nearside verge or other nearside boundary as possible.
  4. In all cases, switch on your hazard warning lights.

If you stop in the nearside lane next to a hard shoulder or verge and feel you are able to exit safely with any occupants, consider exiting your vehicle via the nearside (left hand) door, and wait behind the safety barrier, if there is one and safe to do so.

If it is not possible to get out of your vehicle safely, or there is no other place of relative safety to wait then you should stay in your vehicle with your seat belt on and dial ‘999’ if you have access to a working mobile phone.

Once the regional traffic control centre is aware of your situation, via the police or roadside technology such as CCTV, they can use the smart motorway technology to set overhead signs and close the lane to help keep traffic away from you. They will also send a traffic officer or the police to help you.

Speed limits

On a smart motorway, speed limits may appear lit up on overhead signals. These limits can be changed to help manage traffic at busy times.

This helps smooth the flow of traffic and prevent “stop-start” traffic caused by shockwave traffic jams:

Shockwave traffic jam experiment

If no special speed limit is displayed then the national speed limit applies.

A speed limit displayed inside a red circle is legally enforceable. If you don’t keep to this speed limit, you are breaking the law.

Speed cameras are in operation on smart motorways. If you don’t keep to the speed limit, you may receive a fine.

Hard shoulder use

On smart motorways you will see refuge areas spaced regularly alongside the motorway. You should use these in emergencies.

This is because on some smart motorways the hard shoulder can be opened up for traffic to use at busy times. If it is open for use you will see a speed limit displayed over it.

If there is no sign, or a red X is displayed, then normal hard shoulder rules apply. In other words, do not use it except in emergency.

A hard shoulder is always clearly identified with a solid white unbroken line.

On other types of smart motorway, the hard shoulder has been permanently converted into an extra lane. Where this is the case the lane looks like any other lane, ie it is marked with a broken white line.

Campaign materials

If you would like to help support our safety messages about smart motorways please make use of these resources.

Smart motorways leaflet

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Red X poster

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Summer speed campaign: better watch your speed

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