Smart motorways blamed as drivers pay £25m to recover broken-down cars

Smart motorways are blamed after drivers fork out £25million in five years to recover broken-down vehicles from ‘live’ lanes

  • Traffic officers can order vehicles to be recovered if blocking ‘live lane’ of traffic
  • They can also do so if the driver’s own recovery firm will take too long to attend
  • This typically costs drivers from £150 to £300 as well as compound storage fees
  • Drivers paid £25m for Highway England-ordered recoveries in the last five years

Smart motorways have been blamed for a significant rise in the number of broken-down vehicles recovered from motorways and A-roads.

Under road laws, Highways England traffic officers can order vehicles to be recovered if they are blocking a ‘live lane’ of traffic, or if the driver’s own recovery firm will take too long to attend.

This typically costs drivers between £150 and £300, plus storage fees once their vehicle is moved to a compound.

Vehicles on the M3 smart motorway near Longcross in Surrey, pictured in July 2017

According to Auto Express magazine, the number of vehicles recovered under the organisation’s so-called ‘statutory removal’ powers has increased by a third over the last few years – a significantly greater rise than general traffic levels.

Drivers paid more than £25million for Highway England-ordered recoveries in the last five years, according to figures obtained by the publication under freedom of information laws.

Road experts have linked the rise to the rollout of smart motorways, where the hard shoulder is removed to ease congestion.

Although smart motorways are built with regularly-spaced emergency refuges, many drivers are forced to stop in live lanes of traffic – meaning there is greater urgency to move their vehicle to avoid potential collisions.

Jack Cousens, head of roads policy for the AA, said the revelations ‘highlight the need for more emergency refuge areas’. `

There are currently more than 20 sections of ‘smart motorways’ on seven different motorways 

Stuart Milne, executive editor of Auto Express, added: ‘While most drivers would agree that getting a stricken vehicle off a busy motorway or A-road is a priority, Highways England’s charges feel like another tax on the motorist.

‘Perhaps more than that, this rise in revenue correlates with the rollout of smart motorways. 

‘It’s not much of a leap to suggest that when a vehicle breaks down in a live lane of a smart motorway, it’s far easier for traffic officers to deem it is causing an obstruction.’

Despite charging drivers £25million, Highways England has not managed to recoup expenses linked to the recoveries, meaning it has been left with a £5.5million shortfall in funding over the last five years.

Highways England was unable to say where most breakdowns occurred.

Vehicles travel along the M1, which is one of the roads to have smart motorway sections

A spokesman said: ‘Our roads are among the safest in the world, and maintaining this level of safety is our number one priority. Our traffic officers work hard to keep traffic moving and road users safe.

‘Our traffic officers can remove vehicles, using a statutory recovery service, where the vehicles pose a safety risk to anyone. 

‘This recovery can be from a motorway or a section of A road on our strategic road network.

‘Since the powers were introduced in 2008 the number of vehicles removed by Highways England traffic officers has increased annually. 

‘It is not possible to draw any conclusions from the data released, other than to note traffic levels have steadily increased since this time.’ 

What are the three types of ‘smart’ motorways and how do they work?

All lane running schemes permanently remove the hard shoulder and convert it into a running lane.

On these types of motorway, lane one (formerly the hard shoulder) is only closed to traffic in the event of an incident.

In this case a lane closure will be signalled by a red X on the gantry above, meaning you must exit the lane as soon as possible. 

All running lane motorways also have overhead gantry signs that display the mandatory speed limit. 

Should drivers break down or be involved in an accident there are emergency refuge areas at the side of the carriageway for them to use.  


Controlled motorways have three or more lanes with variable speed limits, but retains a hard shoulder. The hard shoulder should only be used in a genuine emergency.

These variable speed limits are displayed on overhead gantry signs – if no speed limit is displayed the national speed limit is in place. Speed cameras are used to enforce these.  

‘Dynamic’ hard shoulder running involves open the hard shoulder as a running lane to traffic at busy periods to ease congestion.

On these stretches a solid white line differentiates the hard shoulder from the normal carriageway. Overhead signs on gantries indicate whether or not the hard shoulder is open to traffic.

The hard shoulder must not be used if the signs over it are blank or display a red X, except in the case of an emergency.

A red X on the gantry above means you must exit the lane as soon as possible. 

Overhead gantries on these types of motorway also display the mandatory speed limit which varies depending on the traffic conditions. Speed cameras are used to enforce these – no speed limit displayed indicates the national speed limit is in place. 

 Source: RAC

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