Half of UK drivers don’t know the rules for smart motorways

Smart motorways are a controversial but increasingly widespread element of British highways. They’ve been around in some form for well over 15 years now – the first one was trialled all the way back in 2006 – which means that the majority of experienced drivers will have driven on one by now, whether they’ve registered it or not. If you’re currently on the lookout for cheap van deals to expand your fleet, it’s worth bearing in mind that sooner or later, one or more of your drivers are going to make their way across one of these smart motorways.

But despite the fact that they’ve been around for so long, a recent survey showed that there are worrying numbers of British drivers who don’t know how to drive on them. What’s more, some didn’t know what they were at all. These are a worrying findings at the best of times, but even more so now given how widespread they’re becoming.

A summary of the survey’s findings

The survey itself was commissioned by road safety charity Brake, and Green Flag, a UK breakdown company. It quizzed 2010 motorists about their understanding of smart motorways, and found that 75% of respondents know what a smart motorway is, but only 48% know what the rules are when driving on them. Worryingly, a quarter of motorists (25%) didn’t even know exactly what a smart motorway was, much less what the rules were.

Notably, right now England is the only area of the UK in which you can find smart motorways, but even when the focus is narrowed to just the English respondents, there’s not a huge improvement in the general knowledge. 77% know what a smart motorway is, and 52% know what rules to follow. 21% – as many as one in five – don’t know what they are.

Those findings themselves are concerning enough on their own, but the study also found that only 78% of drivers correctly leave a two-second gap between themselves and the car in front when driving on a motorway. Meanwhile, 18% have admitted to not doing this.

What’s more, only 26% know that a car needs 96 metres (or 24 car lengths) to come to a full stop from 70mph. 63% incorrectly thought that a car was able to stop in less time then this. Van drivers can be guilty of this too – we’ve previously covered how not every driver properly accounts for the effect that a full load has on the van’s braking distance, which that equates to a lot of probable and entirely avoidable collisions!

What are smart motorways? The key points in brief

‘Smart motorway’ is a term that’s used to refer to a section of motorway that uses what’s called active traffic management techniques; usually a combination of automated systems and human CCTV operators. The idea is to reduce avoidable congestion, adapting management measures on the fly according to changing traffic conditions, keeping everyone moving smoothly along. Variable speed limits are one of the simplest and most effective ways that smart motorways achieve this.

Now, one of the most distinctive – and controversial – features of smart motorways is their transformation of the hard shoulder into an active lane of traffic, either permanently or temporarily.

There are three basic types of smart motorways:

ALR – This stands for All Lane Running, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. The hard shoulder has been converted into a fourth lane, which is only closed to traffic when there’s been an incident. Instead of the hard shoulder, drivers need to use dedicated Emergency Refuge Areas to remove themselves from the road.

Controlled – This sort of smart motorway involves three or more lanes with variable speed limits. The hard shoulder remains usable as normal.

Dynamic – This one strikes a balance between the two variants above. The hard shoulder is used as a fourth lane only when there’s busy traffic.

Why are smart motorways controversial?

The main reason, as we’ve already touched on above, is the removal of the hard shoulder. The AA believes that smart motorways are about three times as hazardous as normal motorways, having drawn on hazard log data from Highways England’s own archives to reach that verdict.

Most of the general public doesn’t have access to that sort of detailed data, but it’s not hard to see why many of them have arrived at that very same conclusion. If you break down on a smart motorway and you’re not able to get to an Emergency Refuge area, you’ve generally got two options. You can try and drive up onto the verge, as per the official advice, to get out of the way of traffic. But if that’s blocked by a barrier, as it so often is, your only option is to wait and hope that you’re spotted by a CCTV operator, or one of the automated Stationary Vehicle Detection systems.

The trouble with these SVDs is that they currently only cover about 20% of the entire network, so even when they’re active, they might not be facing in the right direction to spot you. And as we’re sadly all aware, vehicles don’t tend to wait until they’re in the safest or most convenient place before they break down.

These growing concerns, as well as the self-evident public confusion surrounding the rules, all prompted a full-scale investigation back in January of this year (2020). A review was later published a few months later in March, along with an 18-point action plan to make smart motorways safer. The action plan has been welcomed by some critics, but there are plenty who remain deeply sceptical of smart motorways as a whole.

However, the cold fact is that like them or not, smart motorways certainly aren’t going away. There are currently 400 miles of them active in England, with more under construction. In light of the survey’s results, it might be worth making sure that all your staff are up to speed on the rules!

We’re not traffic management specialists ourselves here at Van Discount – but what we certainly are good at is getting you the very best van deals. We save our customers an average of 40% off the price of a new van, and with our in-house expertise and experience, we can even offer bespoke conversions for our customers. Feel free to take a look around our site, and if you’ve got any questions or advice, we’re just a phone call away on 01282 872 530!