The M1 on Sheffield's outskirts is now officially a 'smart' motorway - but what does that mean for drivers?

Electronic signs will indicate the speed limit on the 'smart' motorway between junctions 32 and 35a of the M1
Electronic signs will indicate the speed limit on the 'smart' motorway between junctions 32 and 35a of the M1
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It's taken months of engineering works but the M1 between junctions 32 and 35a on the outskirts of Sheffield is now officially a 'smart' motorway.

The stretch between junctions 32, for the M18, and 34, at Meadowhall, became fully operational under its new guise yesterday afternoon (Wednesday, March 29) following a week of testing, but what exactly does this mean for the tens of thousands of drivers using it each day?

We take a look at some of the key questions surrounding the much-vaunted scheme to transform our highways.

What's changed

The biggest difference is that there is now an extra lane, with the hard shoulder being used for traffic.

There is also more technology in place to manage traffic, with electronic signs in place to close lanes or change speed limits when needed.

CCTV footage from the smart motorway will be monitored from control rooms, enabling staff to respond to any incidents

CCTV footage from the smart motorway will be monitored from control rooms, enabling staff to respond to any incidents

Why has this been done?

Highways England says the changes will reduce delays on the 18-mile stretch of motorway, which is used by more than 110,000 vehicles each day.

Is it safe to scrap the hard shoulder?

Highways England says yes, with emergency refuge areas provided every 1.5 miles and extra technology in place to monitor traffic and respond immediately to crashes.

The 'smart' motorway will operate between junctions 32 and 35a of the M1

The 'smart' motorway will operate between junctions 32 and 35a of the M1

But not everyone is convinced. A retired police officer recently described using the hard shoulder, which has traditionally been a refuge for broken-down vehicles, as a 'recipe for disaster'.

Is the speed limit being reduced?

Not yet, though a 60mph cap along this section of the M1 is being considered to cut air pollution in the area, which already exceeds EU limits.

Variable speed limits will be enforced, however, in an attempt to smooth traffic flows. These will be displayed via electronic signs on the overhead gantries.

Why has the speed limit been restricted to 50mph during much of the last week?

A lower limit was in place between junctions 32 and 34 during a week of testing after roadworks along the route were completed but before the 'smart' motorway became fully operational yesterday.

What has the reaction been so far?

Highways England said the week of testing went flawlessly and they are confident drivers will soon notice the difference in terms of smoother, more reliable journeys.

But some drivers have questioned the idea of variable speed limits. One blogger said the 50mph limit during the first week meant drivers joining the motorway from the M18 were 'slamming on the anchors' when they saw the first gantry signs, which he said was unsafe.

What do the signs mean?

A red cross above a lane indicates it is closed due to an incident or because people are working in the road.

What to do if you break down?

Use an emergency refuge area, motorway service area or leave at the next junction, where possible.

If you have to stop in a live lane put on your hazard warning lights to alert other drivers and highways staff monitoring CCTV cameras.

If you are in the left and lane and it is safe to do so, ext via the left hand door and wait behind the barrier if possible.

If you cannot leave the vehicle because you feel it is unsafe to do so, remain inside with your seat belt on and dial 999.

How long did the work take and how much did it cost?

Construction began in February 2015 and finished a week ago. The work cost £106.1m.