Smart motorways use the hard shoulder as a running lane for traffic, either permanently or at busy times of the day, with emergency refuge areas spaced at regular intervals.
However, a survey of more than 2,000 motorists found that 52% did not know what an emergency refuge area was.
There was also considerable confusion about how to use emergency refuge areas, with two-thirds neither knowing what to do after stopping (64%) nor how to re-join the motorway (65%).
What's more, among the 1.5% who had actually used an emergency refuge area, only one respondent knew that drivers should contact Highways England to help them get back on to the motorway if the hard shoulder was operating as a running lane for traffic. Everyone else thought they should just wait for a gap in the traffic and then accelerate as quickly as possible to motorway speed.
Motorists showed better awareness of when it is appropriate to stop in an emergency refuge area. Almost every driver surveyed (98%) said they should be used in a breakdown situation and 90% stated they should be used after an accident, but 40% also thought it was appropriate to use an emergency refuge area for medical reasons such as needing to take medication. Another 27% thought they could be used for either the driver or a passenger to be sick.
Only 1% of respondents thought that emergency refuge areas could be used for rest breaks, toilet stops, to make or take phone calls or for changing a baby's nappy.
The UK Government is investing £3bn in upgrading existing motorways to become smart motorways by 2020.
Highways England is currently conducting a review of emergency refuge areas, and has run a radio advertising campaign reminding people of their correct use.
RAC chief engineer David Bizley commented: "It is essential that motorists understand how and when to use an emergency refuge area so they do not put their own safety and that of other road users at risk. Vehicles should pull up to the indicated mark on the tarmac or the emergency telephone and then the occupants should leave the vehicle from the passenger side. Everyone should stand behind the barriers and should use the emergency roadside telephone provided to speak to a Highways England representative.
"For anyone who hasn't driven on a smart motorway there are some very noticeable differences, the main ones being that there is no permanent hard shoulder, overhead gantries with variable mandatory speed limits, emergency refuge areas spaced up to 2.5km apart and variable message signs. Driving is just the same as normal but motorists need to be very aware of the speed limit applicable at the time as well as watching out for red 'Xs' which indicate that a lane has been closed and it is an offence to drive in it."
Have you ever had to use an emergency refuge area? Do you think there are enough of them on the UK's smart motorways?