What Is the Update on Smart Motorways 2023?

Smart motorways can be a controversial topic. The purpose of building the smart motorway system was to improve traffic flow and reduce congestion through the use of technology and traffic management methods. However, many critics believe they're dangerous and have led to increased road accidents and even deaths. So, what is the update on smart motorways in 2023?

What is a smart motorway?

Smart motorways are high-speed roads designed to make travelling between major cities and towns a lot faster, making cross-country trips more convenient for travellers. But how are they different from conventional motorways? 

With smart motorways, traffic management methods are used to increase capacity, manage traffic flow, and reduce congestion, especially in areas where traffic builds up more often. Some of the traffic management systems in place include using variable speed limits and opening hard shoulders as running lanes to manage traffic flow. There are three types of smart motorways, all-lane running, dynamic hard shoulder, and controlled motorway schemes.

All-lane Running: No Hard Shoulder

This type of smart motorway uses the hard shoulder as a running lane, except if there’s an incident. You’ll know which lanes are closed by checking the overhead signage for a red X, at which point you need to exit that lane as soon as you can. Speed limits can change according to the current traffic conditions, and they’ll be displayed on the signage. If nothing is on display, then follow the national UK speed limit

Dynamic Hard Shoulder: Open on Busy Hours

Unlike the first type of smart motorway, this one only opens the hard shoulder as a running lane during busier periods to help reduce congestion. The hard shoulder is separated from the normal carriageway by a solid white line. 

Before you use the hard shoulder, check the overhead signage to see if it is open to traffic. If there’s a red X or if it’s blank, do not use it. In case of an emergency, the hard shoulder may be used. There’s usually a sign that says “Hard shoulder for emergency use only” in this type of smart motorway. 

Controlled Motorway: Emergency Use Only

For controlled motorways, the traditional hard shoulder is retained and will only be used in the event of an emergency. The other lanes will display variable speed limits on the overhead signage. If it is blank, follow the national speed limit. 

Motorways and dual carriageways have a 70mph speed limit, while single carriageways have a limit of 60mph. Always check the overhead signage whenever you use smart motorways because the speed limits can vary depending on the traffic situation. 

Are smart motorways dangerous?

Generally, conventional motorways are relatively safe. If we examine the statistics, there were fewer incidents on motorways than on urban or rural roads, even if vehicles travel faster on motorways. But what about smart motorways? That’s where this topic becomes a bit more contentious. 

Problems with Variable Speed Limits

Recent surveys reveal that up to 81% of drivers don’t feel safe using smart motorways. The variable speed limits have been an issue for many drivers because they had to adjust quickly to follow the current speed limit. But whilst this traffic management method might be annoying for some, the real concern comes from the removal of the hard shoulder in smart motorways should you break down. 

Accidents on Smart Motorways

Also, without hard shoulders, it becomes very difficult for emergency responders to get to an incident where the vehicles are stuck in the middle of fast-flowing traffic. Studies are being conducted to look into the incidents and the number of deaths on smart motorways. 

So far, there is an observation of an increasing trend in the number of deaths on smart motorways that use hard shoulders as running lanes. But since smart motorways have only been in operation for a short amount of time, the data is not conclusive. 

Drivers Don’t Feel Safe

Many drivers avoid using smart motorways because of the varying speed limits, and they also do not feel safe about the removal of hard shoulders as an area to escape to if their vehicle suddenly breaks down. 

What if your car breaks down on a smart motorway?

If your car is having issues and you think you're about to break down, aim for the nearest exit. If your car is running slowly, turn on your hazard lights. Refuge areas on smart motorways used to be up to 2.5km or 1.5 miles apart, but since the review into safety and accidents caused by people who have broken down on "all lanes running" motorways, this distance is now 500-800m apart. 

If you absolutely cannot get to an exit or even a refuge area, pull over to the left lane, park as far to the left as possible and turn your wheels to the left. Turn your hazard lights on, and exit the vehicle from the left or passenger side if possible. Then notify the emergency services immediately. 

Never remain in a vehicle parked on any motorway. Use the free SOS phone or call Highways England on 0300 123 5000 for help. Why not save the number in your phone now in case you ever need it?

February 2023 Update 

Deadline Set on Safety Improvements

National Highways has set a deadline in July to implement safety improvements on smart motorways. This improvement largely involves a better working stopped vehicle detection (SVD) technology. All lane running (ALR) smart motorways use SVD technology to detect any vehicle that stopped running so that the hard shoulder that's being used as a running lane can be closed to traffic. 

SVD System Requirement Not Met

The problem is that ALR smart motorways are not meeting the minimum requirement set by the National Highway that the SVD system should have an 80% overall detection rate and be able to detect stopped vehicles within 20 seconds. In reality, it takes 43 seconds to up to over a minute for the SVD system to recognise vehicles that have stopped on ALR smart motorways. 

Freeze on New Smart Motorways

At present, there's a freeze on rolling out 11 smart motorway schemes because of the government's decision to prioritise acquiring enough data to assess how safe smart motorways are and what improvements can be implemented. As for the smart motorways that are already being used, additional safety measures are continually being put in place. 

Recently Completed Smart Motorways

Among the most recent projects completed were the 13 new safety refuge areas installed on the M27 smart motorway, between junctions 4 and 11, Southampton and Portsmouth. Upgrades were also completed for the smart motorways running from Greater London across Berkshire, and the M4 smart motorway covering junctions 3 to 12 is now open for use.   

April 2023 Update

Building of New Smart Motorways Cancelled

As of April 2023, it has been announced that no new smart motorways will be built. The two main reasons for this are the cost and safety concerns, according to the government announcement. Among the smart motorways being scrapped are 11 that were already on pause, as well as three that were supposed to be ready for construction. 

During his campaign, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak pledged to address the issue with smart motorways, acknowledging the low public confidence in using such roads. The Department of Transport also stated that pursuing the construction of new smart motorways would have cost over £1bn.

What will happen to existing smart motorways?

The smart motorways currently being used makeup about 10% of the motorway network, and they will undergo a safety refit to improve technology and also provide an additional 150 emergency stopping areas. 

Seven of the 14 smart motorways cancelled were supposed to be converted into an all-lane running scheme, where hard shoulders are removed permanently. With the latest announcement, though, these roads will remain as dynamic smart motorways, with hard shoulders that can be opened and used as an additional lane during peak hours.

Cancelled Smart Motorways 

  • M1 North Leicestershire
  • M1 junctions 35A-39 Sheffield to Wakefield
  • M6 junctions 19- 21A Knutsford to Croft

Smart Motorways to Remain as Dynamic Scheme

  • M1 junction 10-13
  • M4 junction 19-20 
  • M5 junction 15-17
  • M6 junction 4-5
  • M6 junction 5-8
  • M6 junction 8-10a
  • M42 junction 3a-7
  • M62 junction 25-30

Cancelled Conversion into All-lane Running Scheme

  • M3 junction 9-14
  • M40/M42 interchange
  • M62 junction 20-25
  • M25 junction 10-16


The idea behind smart motorways is to use technology and traffic management systems to make cross-country travel faster and safer. Since smart motorways are fairly new, data is still being collected to further assess their impact, especially on the aspect of safety. 

If you found this article useful, why not check out our other Carmoola Blogs? We have lots of interesting and safety-oriented articles to make your driving safer and more fun!

Happy Driving! 😀👍