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Exploring Perceptions and Usage of Smart Motorways


Smart motorways have the potential to decrease delays, reduce congestion and positively impact on customer experience of driving on the motorway network. However, the layout, signage and emergency refuge areas are new to many drivers. Highways England wanted to understand the impact of smart motorways on the driving experience and to probe their acceptance and appeal. (Smart motorways are typically 3 or 4 lane motorways with real-time signage to regulate traffic flow.) The research, conducted with Atkins, also needed to evaluate improvements in signage and information around the emergency areas which effectively replace the presence of hard shoulders.


We designed a programme of qualitative research with a spread of participants from HE’s six different types of drivers from “nervous” to “speedy”. Participants were tasked with making a number of journeys along different stretches of motorway, transitioning from standard to smart and back again. We asked participants to make journeys in different conditions (covering weather, time of day and likely congestion levels) to understand further what impact these factors have on the smart motorway driving experience.

In every case participants were asked to complete a short pre and post task workbook. The journeys were continuously monitored with rear and forward facing dash cams and heart rate monitors. Participants were then brought together in a series of focus groups to discuss their experiences and to work on developing any further improvements to signage that would enhance the driving experience and lessen any stress trigger. We also ran an eye-tracking trial amongst a sub sample of respondents to understand their recognition of the different ERA colours and surfaces.


Overall, we discovered that there was a positive perception of smart motorways amongst most drivers. And despite the fact that drivers were more alert and engaged during their journey, there was no increase in their heart rate. Our research also provided clear guidelines as to how smart signage could be improved using behavioural change techniques, to ensure that people comply with (rather than defy) instructions.