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Smart motorways are said to save drivers “thousands of hours” sitting in traffic jams. However, some motorists are still unconvinced by their safety record, with many expressing fears about the impact of removing hard shoulders in order to increase capacity.

At least 38 people have died on stretches of smart motorways in the past five years, figures show – but there’s a feeling among motoring organisations that a number of those deaths were avoidable.

The government stresses that smart motorways are as safe as, or safer than, conventional motorways – but it’s clear this is dependent on motorists understanding how to drive on them.

In this article, we’ll cover everything from what the red X means when driving on a smart motorway, to what you should do in the event of breaking down in your campervan.

The last thing you want to do is have to claim on your campervan insurance policy  due to an avoidable incident on a smart motorway.

So, what exactly is a smart motorway and how can you avoid trouble when driving on one?


Smart motorways explained

Smart motorways are the parts of Highways England’s motorway network which use technology to monitor and manage the flow of traffic.

The technology is operated from regional control centres to help traffic flow more smoothly, even in the event of an incident.

The smart motorways project was developed by Highways England (previously the Highways Agency) with the goal to better manage increasing amounts of traffic, in a way that minimises environmental impact, cost and construction time by avoiding the need to build additional lanes.

The UK road network has seen a 23% rise in traffic since 2000, according to official figures.

There are three types of schemes categorised as smart motorways:


'All lane running' schemes

As the name indicates, ‘all lane running’ schemes involve removing the hard shoulder and converting it into a running lane.

Straight away you might be thinking ‘what happens if someone breaks down?’ and the answer is that the lane where the vehicle has come to a stop – ideally lane one (formerly the hard shoulder) – is closed to traffic until it is cleared.

In the event of an incident, the affected lanes are closed, signalled by a red X on an overhead gantry and/or on a verge-mounted sign, meaning motorists must exit the lane/s as soon as possible.

Continuing to drive in a lane marked with a ‘red X’ sign is extremely dangerous and illegal.

CCTV monitors traffic for any incidents. Any drivers who find themselves involved in an accident should try to safely navigate to one of the emergency refuge areas (ERAs) at the side of the carriageway.

However, that might not be always possible – they are currently spaced, on average, 1.5 miles apart.

Remember, campervan insurance can help protect you from the financial costs of repairing your van after an accident.

 A smart motorway sign showing a lane ahead is closed

'Dynamic hard shoulder' schemes

‘Dynamic hard shoulders’ have proved the most controversial of the schemes. These motorways see the hard shoulder used as a running lane to traffic at busy periods to ease congestion, indicated by overhead signs on gantries.

The hard shoulder is not permitted to be used if the signs over it are blank or display a red X, except in the case of an emergency – if a red X appears while you’re in the lane, exit at the earliest opportunity.

However, road safety campaigners have argued that the dynamic hard shoulder is proving confusing, with drivers unsure when they’re permitted to use the hard shoulder as an additional live lane.

Following a review, the government has agreed. As such, these motorways will be converted to all-lane running – with refuge areas instead of a hard shoulder – by 2025.

See below for other measures announced to improve safety on smart motorways.


'Controlled motorway' schemes

Controlled motorways have three or more lanes with variable speed limits, but the traditional hard shoulder remains intact. The hard shoulder should only be used in case of an emergency.


What is a variable speed limit?

A variable speed limit is a speed limit which is set dynamically, changing according to road conditions.

Signage is used on smart motorways to notify drivers of a variable speed limit. If you don’t see signage indicating a change in the speed limit, the national speed limit is in place.

Speed cameras are used to enforce varying speed limits, automatically adjusting according to the limit in place at that time.

Drivers have expressed their concerns about adjusting in time to the variable speed limit changes, which might cause them to slam on their brakes. However, Highways England have said there is a slight lag between when the speed limit is changed and when the cameras will begin to enforce that speed limit so that drivers can reduce their speed at a sensible and safe rate.

While Highways England doesn’t specify how long the lag is exactly, it’s been suggested it can be as quick as 10 seconds after the variable speed limit is set, so drivers need to respond swiftly and safely.

A busy motorway in the evening

Government introduces new measures for smart motorways

An 18-point plan to ensure the safety of smart motorways, which includes the abolishment of dynamic hard shoulder schemes, has been announced by the UK government.

Other safety measures included:


Better 'stopped vehicle detection'

The aim is to detect vehicles stopped on the carriageway in just 20 seconds. The government has recognised this means faster roll-out of stopped vehicle detection to all sections of smart motorway is necessary, with the technology to be included as a standard in future schemes.


Faster response by highways patrols

The government also wants to reduce the police attendance time to a scene from 17 minutes, on average, to 10 minutes. The sections of smart motorways to be prioritised will be those where the existing spacing between places to stop in an emergency, such as motorway services and emergency areas, is more than one mile.


More emergency stopping places

As well as a faster emergency response, there is a commitment to create more emergency stopping places. The new standard for spacing of places to stop in the event of an emergency will be a maximum of one mile apart. However, where possible, on future schemes, drivers will have the option to make an emergency stop every 0.75 miles.


Making emergency areas more visible

All emergency areas will have a bright orange road surface, better signs on approach showing where they are, and signs within them giving information on what to do. These will be installed by the end of spring 2020.


Further investigation into accident hotspots

The government has committed to intensifying its investigations into accident hotspots on the motorway network. The M6 Bromford viaduct and sections of the M1 are top of the agenda to understand what more could be done on these sections where multiple collisions have occurred.


More money on awareness campaigns

The government has also recognised the need to improve public awareness of the changes being made to the motorway network, announcing it will be spending an extra £5 million on improving drivers’ understanding of smart motorways. The awareness campaigns will ensure drivers receive advice to help them keep safe on smart motorways, including what to do in a breakdown.


Using digital cameras to enforce red X signs on lanes

As well as speed cameras, the upgrade of digital enforcement cameras across the smart motorway network will result in the automatic detection of drivers ignoring the red X sign in closed lanes.


Emergency stop places to be displayed on sat navs

To make it easier for drivers to find safety, the government will work with sat nav providers to ensure they are visible on their devices.


Displaying obstructions on overhead signs

Displaying ‘report of obstruction’ messages automatically on electronic signs to warn oncoming drivers of a stopped vehicle ahead.


Speed limit to be cut on some sections

There are proposals to reduce the speed limit to 60mph in some sections of motorway in a bid to cut emissions, including the M1 in Rotherham.

A time lapse of a motorway bend at night with many lines of light from passing vehicles

What should you do if you break down?

It is vital you instinctively know what to do in the event of an emergency or a breakdown in order to keep yourself and others safe.

If your campervan has a problem on a motorway with no hard shoulder, you should:

  • Safely steer your vehicle into the left-hand lane and put your hazard lights on.
  • If possible, exit the motorway at the next junction or services OR
  • Follow the orange SOS signs to the nearest emergency area and call for help using the free telephone. This will reveal your location to the emergency services.

If you can’t make it off the motorway or to an emergency area:

  • Manoeuvre your campervan as close as possible to the left-hand verge, boundary or slip road.
  • If safe to do so, you and any passengers should try to exit your camper via the left-hand door and wait behind the safety barrier. Keep a safe distance from your vehicle and any moving traffic at all times.
  • Call 999 immediately.

If your campervan stops unexpectedly in the middle of a smart motorway carriageway and it is not safe to get out, you should:

  • Keep your seatbelts and hazard lights on and call 999 immediately
  • The control centre will close the lane and send help.

If there is a hard shoulder on a motorway, it should only be used in case of an emergency. Use the free SOS phone or call Highways England on 0300 123 5000 for help. Save the number on your phone in case you can’t make it to one of the free phones.

Drivers are expected to be able to make their own recovery arrangements in the event of a breakdown. You may be able to add breakdown cover to your campervan insurance – ask Motorhome Protect for details.


What is the role of the control centre?

Regional control centres are in place to monitor and manage the motorways with the use of CCTV cameras.

Once the control centre is aware of your situation (via CCTV or the police), they will take necessary action – set overhead signs and close the lane – to help keep traffic away from your vehicle.

The control centre can also send a traffic officer or the police to help you if they deem it necessary, and assist you to rejoin the motorway if you manage to get back up and running.

However, if you break down or are in an emergency, you still need to call for help as soon as possible.

A pole with two CCTV cameras attached to the top of it

Some final quick tips

Here are some final quick tips to help you navigate the UK’s network of smart motorways safely:

  • Move out of a lane indicated with a red X.
  • Stick to the speed limits shown on the signs.
  • A hard shoulder is recognisable by a solid white unbroken line – if there’s no speed limit displayed above it or a red X is displayed, it should not be used except in an emergency.
  • A normal running lane is identifiable by a broken white line.
  • If the hard shoulder is being used as an extra lane, use the designated emergency area when possible.
  • If your campervan experiences any difficulties, exit the motorway immediately if you can. If not, stop and put your hazards on.
  • Most breakdowns can be prevented by ensuring your campervan is well maintained – you should regularly check your tyres and make sure you have enough fuel for your journey.


How can I protect my vehicle with campervan insurance?

Whether you own a motorhome or campervan, the vehicle you drive is a significant investment in both time and money, so never take them out on the road without the proper protection.

Whether driving on busy motorways or quiet country roads, your treasured vehicle can be prone to road traffic accidents and damage.

Working with our panel of leading campervan insurers, Motorhome Protect will find you the very best insurance for your campervan , appropriate to your vehicle, needs and budget.

Our bespoke cover is arranged by our dedicated team of specialists and can include benefits such as:

  • Cover for up to 365 days a year including foreign use
  • Cover for vehicles valued up to £150,000
  • Enhanced cover for personal effects up to £3,000
  • Uncapped mileage cover
  • Unlimited EU cover
  • Quotes available for customers with claims and convictions

Call Motorhome Protect and get a quote for campervan insurance today.

Policy benefits and features offered may very between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. Information contained within this article is accurate at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.