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How do smart motorways work?

O2 Drive

How smart motorways keep drivers moving

What makes a motorway smart? No, that’s not the opening line of a joke – it’s a genuine question. As Britain’s motorways are upgraded to 'smart' status, here's what that means for us as drivers.

What are smart motorways?

Smart motorways use electronic gantries (overhead signs) to regulate traffic. Since the system was first tested on the M42 in 2006, Highways England data suggests that personal injury accidents have fallen by more than half. And they say it's now 22% more likely you'll reach your destination on time. Smart indeed.

How do they work?

Regional centres monitor the traffic levels, and remote technology makes changes to the electronic signs. The gantries open and close lanes, bring in the hard shoulder at peak times, change speed limits and warn drivers about any trouble ahead.

Responsive lane closure helps drivers avoid obstacles, so one of the main gantry messages you should look out for is lane closure. Never stay in a lane that’s been marked with a red X, and move across as soon as it's safe.

What if I break down?

If the hard shoulder becomes a live lane during busy periods, it's replaced with emergency refuge areas. They’re marked with blue signs with an orange SOS phone symbol. You’ll come across them every 75 seconds or so, based on a driving speed of 60mph.

Are there more to come?

By 2020, the government plans to invest a total of £11 billion in motorway and A road improvements. Highways England estimates that congestion costs £2 billion a year, so the scheme should soon pay for itself. Smart motorways will add around 400 miles of new carriageway, helping to keep the nation driving along efficiently.

Want to use your own smart tech? With the O2 Drive app you can monitor your driving habits, get tips on how to improve and even find parking spaces – whether you've got O2 Drive car insurance or not. Download the app for Android or iOS.