How To Drive on a Smart Motorway?

29 November 2019 / Lindleys Autocentres

Smart motorways are still relatively new and have become quite popular amongst UK roads.

They have been implemented to reduce environmental impact, cost, time and without having to add additional lanes to the motorway and instead - replacing the hard shoulder as an additional lane to drive in.

Whilst we’ve had motorways for many years, this new approach to driving on motorways and the laws enforced upon British drivers has changed and many drivers are still unaware of the new changes and highway laws that come with driving on smart motorways.

In this article, we aim to inform drivers on how to drive on smart motorways so that you don’t get caught out and you stay on the right side of the law. We’ll be covering;

  • What is the variable speed limit?

  • What does the red X mean?

  • What do I do if I break down on a smart motorway?

What is the variable speed limit?

The variable speed limit has come into place on smart motorways and allows the flow of traffic to be managed easier. 

Rather than getting stuck in four lanes of traffic, with back-to-back cars, the variable speed limit aims to slow down traffic by enforcing a speed limit on the gantries. 

If there is no speed detected on the signs, the driver must drive at the normal motorway speed limit of 70mph but still must keep left whenever possible.

Keeping left on a smart motorway is a rule that has always been in the highway code but is most of the time overlooked by drivers and lane-hoggers. But shouldn’t be. So whenever you can remain in the left lane unless overtaking or upon a lane closure (more on this soon).

You will usually see variable speed limits enforced during busy periods such as rush hour traffic, morning and night. They can also be automatically triggered when there is a collision or when traffic is heavily built up.

So it is important keep checking your speed and the gantries to see what speed you should be driving at. Failure to do so could result in points on your license and in some cases a fine.

What does the red X mean?

Quite simply, a red X above a lane and on a gantry means that the lane is closed and drivers should not drive in that lane.

Most of the time, a red X appears when there has been a collision, a breakdown or other case-by-case scenarios.

But failing to uphold this law and driving in the lane that is closed, can result in a hefty fine and points on your driving license.

So it’s best to keep out of that line when told to do so to avoid any consequences on your license.

What to do if I break down on a smart motorway?

The first thing to do if you breakdown on a smart motorway is to remain calm at the wheel and try to pull over onto the hard shoulder to not obstruct traffic.

If this can’t be helped, put your hazard lights on to alert other drivers you have broken down. And call your breakdown service or find a local garage who can come out and rescue you.

Then, you need to alert the highway officials who can close the lane until you have been rescued. 

To alert the motorway officials, make sure your car is on the hard shoulder and put your hazard lights on. If you can, get out of the passenger side as it may be unsafe to open your car door and get out when traffic is travelling up to 70mph.

If you can’t, wait until there is a gap in traffic and get out of the car. Walk to where there is an emergency (red) telephone and tell alert them that you have broken down.

Wait outside of your car on the hard shoulder (usually on the grass) until breakdown service has come to rescue you. Once you have been rescued, the highway officials will re-open the lane.

Get your car ready for driving on a smart motorway

If you don’t usually drive on a motorway and you’ve only ever been on a motorway a handful of times (or if this will be your first time) as you come off the roundabout and drive down the slip road, it can be quite daunting having cars drive at 70mph as you signal to come on.

The most important thing is to remain calm and beforehand, consider taking someone with you who is an experienced driver to calm your nerves.

But the last thing you want to go wrong, for any driver, is breaking down on a smart motorway and whilst some believe highway officials have made it easier if you break down, others believe it’s more tricky because there’s no hard shoulder.

Nevertheless, be prepared and book your car in for a service, just to give you peace of mind before driving on a smart motorway knowing that your car is safe to drive and your chances of breaking down are slim.

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