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This question arises from a conversation about road holidays in the UK, where I live.

I was chatting to an older friend of the family, and it turns out they haven't heard of smart motorways. They drive on motorways routinely (experienced driver) but assumed any lane closures were routine works (a lot of smart motorways are being upgraded at the moment).

Smart motorways require whole new areas of knowledge (different rules, different safety information, hard shoulder/refuge changes), and can kill if one isn't aware, unlike many changes to the law which are more intuitive. But they hadn't heard of any of this. They don't have a TV so they haven't been exposed to TV adverts. They don't look at billboards while driving to avoid distraction. They are "family, friends, walking, and board games" type people.

Was there some mailshot they missed, or how should they have known about these crucial matters? Smart motorways have been on the way for over a decade and they'd never registered the term. They thought it was some old buzzword for variable speed limits.

It could kill them , it could cost points. I was shocked - but I also didn't have an answer how it was intended that people not interested in TV or other advertising platforms would become aware of the huge changes. Surely it was too important to just leave to chance viewing of adverts and nothing more?

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    This question assumes that the reader knows what a "smart motorway" is. I do not. Can you please add some information about it, or at least some links?
    – phoog
    Jan 19 at 22:43
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    It's all about reading signs, driving carefully and adapting to changing traffic situations. What part of this do you feel needs to be communicated? Nothern Germany has the same concept on some motorways, in my experience the adaptive signs along the road are sufficient.
    – Erik
    Jan 20 at 7:39
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    What I see as the main (only?) difference is that the hard shoulder becomes an active lane. And if people have driven on roads with roadworks they know how that works. Speed limits displayed should always be followed.
    – Willeke
    Jan 20 at 9:10
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    This isn't a question about travelling, except that it involves road upgrades and a traveller might use them (but then a traveller might do any of a billion things, without it being travel-related); it's a question about political or regulatory body reasoning for a domestic decision.
    – Nij
    Jan 20 at 9:39
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    I’m voting to close this question because the reasoning and decisions behind the approach to communication / education of drivers by the UK Government belongs on politics.stackexchange.com
    – Traveller
    Jan 20 at 10:06
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As a UK driver (albeit an occasional one) who learnt to drive some time before these things were thought up, I'm probably the sort of person you're thinking of when you ask.

They are intended to make sense to people who understand the Highway Code (UK rules of the road) and can read and obey signs. They largely succeed in this, though I could quibble about some minor aspects of the signage.

Some of the features aren't new - they already existed on other motorways, such variable speed limits on the M25's. The signs closely resemble conventional speed limit signs, just swapping white->black (background) and black->white (or yellow in some cases - text).

Lane closure/use signs are mainly text or follow existing road signs within the limits of the electronic signage. In some sections the hard shoulder is only for the next exit (normally the case in the Bristol M4/M5/M32 area), but in others the hard shoulder serves as lane 1. That takes a bit of explaining. One issue may be that some instructions are rather wordy compared to standard signs - a problem perhaps for those whose English reading isn't the quickest.

Smart motorways tend to be used at busy periods, so there will normally be flowing traffic on the hard shoulder. That's a pretty good indication that you'd only pull in and stop there if you had absolutely no alternative. Refuges are fairly obvious if you can limp to one.

From what I've read of crashes taking place in that lane, the cars that stopped did so legitimately. The traffic may have picked up speed while they were stopped, increasing the hazard. As all drivers must be alert to hazards in front whatever lane they're in, the stopped drivers should still be safe, but that obviously breaks down sometimes.

A late addition to the answer: in March 2021 I noticed ads appearing in Android apps, which can be summarised as "if you have a problem on the motorway, move left" showing these refuge areas.


For the benefit of unfamiliar readers: UK motorways have a "hard shoulder", an emergency lane, which is reserved for emergencies such as breaking down, and is paved just like the running lanes. This was one of the defining features of motorways until the smart motorways project, which took over this space to relieve congestion. A series of emergency refuges (wide laybys basically, frequent in some areas, less so in others) give drivers somewhere to stop if they need to and can still move forwards. When the hard shoulder is used as a running lane the speed is normally (maybe always) reduced from the standard 70 mph, with frequent signs indicating this, backed up by camera enforcement.

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A smart motorway is a section of a motorway that uses real time traffic management techniques to increase capacity and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas eg M6 in the Midlands, M4/5 around Bristol https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/836639/BHM17_0054_MGW.PDF These methods include using the hard shoulder as a running lane and using variable speed limits to control the flow of traffic. Highways England developed smart motorways to manage traffic in a way that minimises environmental impact, cost and time to construct by avoiding the need to build additional lanes. Regional traffic control centres monitor traffic closely to consistently update and amend speed limits and signs on smart motorways, informing users of any upcoming congestion or hazards.

Upwards of £1.5bn has been invested in creating smart motorways. Following concerns expressed about their safety, the UK Government commissioned an analysis of the evidence, the results of which were published in March 2020 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/strategic-roads-update-smart-motorways-evidence-stocktake

The action plan announced to boost smart motorway safety includes more communication with drivers and a commitment to an additional £5 million on national targeted communications campaigns to further increase awareness and understanding of smart motorways, how they work and how to use them confidently. In his statement on publishing the report, the Secretary of State for Transport commented “Motorists could be better informed about this change in our motorways. Many do not know exactly what a smart motorway is, and are not aware of when they are on one or not.”

Having said the above, I’m not aware that much has been done to raise awareness since March 2020. Motoring organisations such as the RAC have published information https://www.rac.co.uk/drive/advice/driving-advice/smart-motorways/ and media reports appear from time to time eg https://amp.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/19/what-are-smart-motorways-and-are-they-safe

With more cameras on smart motorways and variable speed limits, motorists typically have a much higher chance of getting caught and fined for speeding. https://www.rac.co.uk/drive/advice/legal/speeding-fines/ Ignoring the ‘red X’ sign is extremely dangerous (there may be a broken down vehicle ahead, for example) and camera enforcement is due to begin which will see drivers face an automatic £100 fine and three penalty points for doing so. The risks associated with breaking down on a smart motorway where there is no hard shoulder means drivers must understand how to get to and use Emergency Refuge Areas and stay safe outside their vehicle.

A few practical suggestion to address your elderly friends’ awareness gap might be:

  • if they have internet access at home, they could research the topic. If they don’t, once Covid restrictions allow, they could go along to their local library and ask for help to look up smart motorway user information

  • for them to pay close attention to all signage, open/closed lane indicators, and speed limits next time they use a motorway.

  • obtain a copy of the current Highway Code https://www.gov.uk/guidance/the-highway-code/motorways-253-to-273, which takes smart motorway rules and signs into account

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    This is informative, but its really answering "What are they and what should someone be told. The actual question is in the last sentence of the OP, which I've bolded for clarity - given the need for new knowledge about change of hard shoulders and new refuge areas,which can and do kill if unknown, surely this was too important. Do we know anything about if/why there has apparently never been an effort to inform drivers, national mailshot, whatever, or properly reach/educate existing drivers who need that knowledge, perhaps to stay alive in future, certainly to avoid new penalties?
    – Stilez
    Jan 20 at 5:27
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    All of the signage around "smart motorways" I have seen should be self evident to anyone who knows the traffic code. Dynamic speed limit signs look the same as static ones for example. The red cross to indicated a closed lane has also been around almost as long as motorways have. Jan 20 at 8:07
  • Much of the protocol around stopping and refuges, and hard shoulders, has changed, though
    – Stilez
    Jan 20 at 8:50
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    @Stilez Smart motorways have been progressively introduced in the UK over a decade or more. They have taken years to construct and caused much traffic congestion meanwhile. You’d have to be oblivious to your surroundings not to know you’re on one, and the signage is self-explanatory and consistent with the traffic code. Stopping on the hard shoulder was only ever allowed in an emergency. I answered your question because it interested me (given hours spent sitting in construction roadworks) however a question about political reasoning doesn’t belong on TSE, IMHO
    – Traveller
    Jan 20 at 9:57
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    As with any other change in the law it’s one of the duties of a citizen to keep themselves informed of the law as it applies to activities they undertake. Driving is no different. Jan 22 at 9:14

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