Smart motorways have no hard shoulder - do you know what to do in the event of a breakdown?

If you regularly use Britain’s system of motorways, you may have noticed an increase in the amount of motorways that are being converted to ‘smart motorways’ - in fact, 488 miles of England's 2,300 mile motorway network was made up of smart motorways in 2020. With the hard shoulder on smart motorways becoming another lane to ease traffic flow, do you know what to do in the event of a breakdown?

Utilising traffic calming measures such as variable speed limits and an additional lane, smart motorways have already proven themselves to be an effective way to reduce congestion at peak times and in busy areas. Unlike traditional motorways, however, they do not have a hazard lane for use in the event of a breakdown or accident. Unknown by many road users, smart motorways instead employ laybys named ‘Emergency Refuge Areas (ERA)’.

These orange laybys are positioned every 1.5 miles, are marked with large blue signs and feature an orange SOS telephone. Emergency Refuge Areas are for use in the event of an emergency only and should not be used as a rest stop, to make a call and etc.

In the event of a breakdown or accident, the RAC advise that you should try to reach an ERA, stop in the layby and then ensure that your hazard lights are on. After this, you should exit your vehicle through the passenger door (if possible) and then head over to stand behind the crash barrier.

Once behind the crash barrier, you should then use the SOS telephone to gain further instructions from a Highways England representative. If you cannot exit your vehicle to use the SOS telephone, you should use your mobile to contact Highways England on 0300 123 5000.

Once you have contacted Highways England and the emergency services (if required) you should then contact your breakdown service, so that they can come to your aid.

smart motorway

Many people are unaware that, if your vehicle gets repaired and you wish to leave the ERA, you should once again use the SOS telephone to contact Highways England and make them aware of your intention to leave. Once alerted that you are ready to leave the ERA, the representative will mark the nearside lane with a red X, subsequently closing the lane and allowing you to safely re-join the motorway. ​

For many, the problem with Emergency Refuge Areas is that their vehicle breaks down whilst they are within the 1.5 mile gap that is between each ERA. If this is the case, the RAC advises that, if it is safe to do so, you try to head to the nearside lane and move onto the verge (providing that there is no safety barrier). Ensuring that your hazard lights are on, you should then exit your vehicle through the passenger door and wait behind the safety barrier (if there is one). Once authorities are aware of your stranded vehicle, they will close the lane with the red X symbol – if you can, you should contact Highways England by using a roadside emergency telephone.

If you are unable to exit your vehicle or cannot reach the nearside lane, you should remain in your vehicle with your seatbelt on, ensure that your hazard warning lights are on and dial ‘999’.

Designed to help relieve motorway traffic, a total of 488 miles of England's 2,300-mile motorway network was made up of smart motorways in 2020 and another 300 miles is planned by 2025.

According to Autocar, there were over 207,000 breakdowns on England's motorways in 2019 and safety concerns surrounding smart motorways have been raised. Since then, however, a government review has caused 18 new measures to boost safety. Something you can read more about here.

Due to the review and new safety measures, the government has ruled out removing smart motorways, making it even more important that you know what to do should you run into car trouble on a stretch of smart motorway.

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Information sourced from the RAC. Image from the Highways Agency (image license here)

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