Smart motorways: How to feel safer

Smart motorways have proved hugely controversial in the UK, due to concerns over safety.

After high-profile deaths on smart motorways and pressure from motorists and motoring groups, in January 2022 the government paused the construction of new smart motorways and, last year, announced no new ones would be built.

We look at the best ways to stay safe while using smart motorways and examine what further changes are being called for.

Drive smarter and cut your costs. Sign up for our Cars newsletter, it's free monthly[1]

What are smart motorways?

There are three types of smart motorway in the UK:

  • Controlled motorways: These have three or more lanes with variable speed limits displayed on overhead gantry signs. They have a hard shoulder for use in emergencies.
  • All Lane Running (ALR): The hard shoulder is permanently used as an additional lane and only closed for incidents. If drivers break down, they're instructed to use specially designed emergency refuge areas.
  • Dynamic Hard Shoulder (DHS): The hard shoulder is used as an additional live lane during particularly busy traffic.

    Overhead signs show if the hard shoulder is open for traffic.

Smart motorway map

Smart motorways map

Are smart motorways dangerous?

A Which? survey of 1,021 people found that 70% of road users dislike smart motorways. Only 3% said they liked them.

Many of these concerns are based around fears of breaking down, given the lack of a continuous hard shoulder on some types of smart motorway. According to our research, a third of people don't know what to do if they break down on a smart motorway, while 75% of road users feel less safe driving on a smart motorway than a conventional motorway, and just 2% feel safer.

The RAC says: 'The ultimate question remains: will the motoring public ever be entirely comfortable driving on the 200-plus miles of motorway where the hard shoulder has been permanently removed?

'The hard shoulder is by no means a safe location, but in the event of a breakdown it is far safer than being stranded in a live lane of traffic waiting for the 'red X closed lane' sign to be turned on and then for other drivers to do the right thing and move into another lane.

'We continue to believe the government should either convert existing all-lane-running smart motorways to dynamic ones, where the hard shoulder is only opened to traffic during busy periods, or repaint the white line and reintroduce a permanent hard shoulder on these roads.'

However, National Highways said the latest data showed that, overall, in terms of serious casualties or deaths, smart motorways are safer than any other road.

'We appreciate more work is needed to help everyone feel confident when using sections of smart motorway,' National Highways said.

It added that the authority would continue to work with the Department for Transport (DfT) to deliver safety improvements on existing smart motorways.

Best motorway services in the UK: Seeking to take a break?

Find the best places to stop on your journey - and those to avoid.[2]

Tips for staying safe on smart motorways

A smart motorway
  • Obey warnings: Pay attention to overhead gantry and roadside signs. A red X or a directional arrow means the lane must not be used, and you should exit it as soon as is safely possible. Make sure you move over prior to passing the X, as closed-lane driving receives a GBP100 fine and three driving licence penalty points.
  • Maintain your car: Keep your vehicle well maintained and in good condition, as many breakdowns are caused by tyres or engines.

    Make sure you have more than enough fuel to complete your motorway journey, as running out could leave you stranded and unable to reach safety.

  • Give yourself room: By leaving sufficient space between other vehicles, you'll give yourself time to react to incidents. Frequently scan the road ahead so you spot possible danger in good time. Take regular breaks to stop yourself getting tired and inattentive.
  • Use refuge zones: If you break down, National Highways advises drivers to go left and try to continue to the next junction, service area or emergency refuge zone, which are marked with blue signs featuring an orange SOS telephone symbol.

    Put on your hazard lights and exit the car via the passenger door. The refuge zone will have an emergency telephone.

  • Head for the verge: If you're unable to make it to a refuge zone, pull over as far left as possible, then get yourself and any passengers out of the vehicle via the passenger door and over the safety barrier on to the verge. Be aware of any uneven ground, debris or sudden drops on the verge.
  • Call 999: If your car stops unexpectedly and it isn't safe to get out, National Highways advises drivers to stay in their vehicle, with their seatbelts and hazard warning lights on, and call 999 immediately.

    The emergency services will send help and will tell National Highways to close lanes.

Best car breakdown providers for 2024: We compare the top providers and reveal which ones we'd recommend.[3]


  1. ^ Sign up for our Cars newsletter, it's free monthly (
  2. ^ Best motorway services in the UK: (
  3. ^ Best car breakdown providers for 2024: (