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Motorway driving: how to stay safe

We look at some common motorway confusions, and how some could end up costing you.

A panoramic view of drivers on the motorway  

Driving on the motorway is a rite of passage for many. That may be a thing of the past now that learner drivers will be allowed to grace our M-roads.

Nevertheless, the motorway is still the road-of-choice for commuters and holidaymakers alike. And with 17% of all British traffic riding these roads, tensions can be high.  

When it’s not people hogging the middle lane, you’ve got impatient drivers tailgating you for miles. It’s frustrating. And what’s more, many drivers aren’t even aware they’re doing it.

These bad driving habits range from plain annoying to downright illegal. And if you’re caught, it could mean points on your licence, which could mean higher car insurance costs.

With that in mind, here’s a quick refresher on how to use the motorway without annoying your fellow drivers. Not only that, but you’ll stay on the right side of the law, too.

 

Motorists could be charged £100 for driving in the wrong lane on motorways 

On smart motorways, drivers aren't supposed to drive in lanes that have a red X above them unless it's an emergency. Now, smart cameras are being used to identify motorists who ignore the red X sign. If you're caught driving in a lane with a red X above it, you could be fined £100 and get three points on your licence.

In response to campaigns around the controversial smart motorways network, earlier this year a number of changes to the Highway Code were proposed.

These include:

  • How to recognise lane closures and speed limit changes on smart motorways

  • Guidance on when to drive on the hard shoulder

  • Bolstering the role of signage as an indicator of motorway speeds

The proposed changes also include advice on what happens if you break down on a smart motorway:

  • Go left – move as far left as is safe to do so

  • Find the nearest hard shoulder or emergency refuge area

 

Motorway lanes explained 

Let’s clear up a couple of myths first.

There’s no such thing as a fast lane. There’s no such thing as a slow lane.

The lanes on a motorway are called lane one, lane two and lane three. That’s it.

This is how they work:

  • Lane one – left-hand lane for normal driving

  • Lane two – middle lane for overtaking

  • Lane three – right-hand lane for overtaking

Certain kinds of vehicle can never use the right-hand lane on a motorway with three or more lanes:

  • Vehicles with trailers

  • Speed-limited good vehicles between 3.5 and 7.5 tonnes

  • Any vehicle over 7.5 tonnes

  • Speed-limited vehicles meant to carry more than eight passengers

You can find the full list on the Highway Code.

 

How you should use the lanes on a motorway 

You should drive in the left-hand lane unless slower traffic ahead means you need to overtake. Similarly, if you then need to overtake traffic in the middle lane, use the outside.

You can also move across to the right if you’re approaching a junction and traffic is about to merge from a slip road on the left.

Overtake only when it’s safe and legal to do so. Never overtake on the left (also known as undertaking).

Once you’ve overtaken, you should move back into the left lane. Hogging the middle lane is not only bad form, it’s an offence that could leave you with points on your licence.

If you’re moving from the right-hand lane towards the left, take extra care. There might be a car moving from the left-hand lane to the middle at the same time.

There’s one circumstance where you can technically overtake on the left. This is where all lanes of traffic are moving slowly, but the left lane is moving slightly faster.

This tends to be fine. But don’t start weaving in and out of your lane to get ahead.

 

Motorway driving tips

Keep your distance from the car in front. Remember to leave a two-second gap between you and them. This goes up to a four-second gap in rainy weather, and a 10-second gap in icy conditions.

If it’s your first time on the motorway, it might be worth bringing a more experienced driver with you. Even better, you could ask a driving instructor to give you a proper lesson.

Plan ahead so you know your route. At the very least, you should know what junction numbers you need when you join and when you leave.

Run some basic checks on your car beforehand, like checking your tyre pressure. You don’t want to run low on oil or blow out a tyre on a motorway.

Ultimately, skill comes from experience – the more you use the motorway, the better you’re likely to be.

 

What to do when driving on a motorway for the first time

  • Consider asking someone to accompany you. Although motorway driving is straightforward when you follow the rules, if you’ are nervous it can help to have someone alongside you for support.
  • Check your oil levels, brakes, tyres and windscreen fluid before setting out.
  • Check your route before you travel and make a note of the number of the junction where you plan to come off.
  • Use your indicators and mirrors (without forgetting the blind spot) and be confident as you enter from the slip road. Other drivers will see you and will let you in, but if you hesitate it can confuse them.
  • Although the default speed limit is 70mph on a motorway, keep your eyes open for signs informing you of lower limits.
  • Keep checking your mirrors while you’ are on the motorway so you know what is happening all around you. Indicate in good time when you want to change lanes. Again, when other motorists see what you’ are planning to do, they’ll accommodate you.
  • Make sure you’re in the left-hand lane in good time before you reach the junction where you are coming off the motorway

 

How you should join and leave the motorway  

When joining a motorway, you should always give priority to vehicles already on the motorway.

Some slip roads eventually become the left-hand lane of the motorway. If this is the case, stay in your lane until you fully join.

You should be made aware of your exit junction well before you need to leave the motorway. This should give you plenty of time to move into the left-hand lane before reaching the exit.

When you’re leaving at your junction, keep your speed in check. After cruising at 70 mph for miles, your speed might be higher than you think - even if you slow down.

 

Overtaking on the motorway

Only overtake when it’s safe and legal to do so. Never overtake on the left (also known as undertaking).

Once you’ve overtaken, you should move back into the left lane. Hogging the middle lane is not only bad form, it’s an offence that could leave you with points on your licence.

If you’re moving from the right-hand lane towards the left, take extra care. There might be a car moving from the left-hand lane to the middle at the same time.

There’s one circumstance where you can technically overtake on the left. This is where all lanes of traffic are moving slowly, but the left lane is moving slightly faster.

This tends to be fine. But don’t start weaving in and out of your lane to get ahead.

 

Motorway rules summary 

  • Unless a motorway is a natural extension of an A road, you join it from a slip road. Accelerate until you are travelling alongside the traffic already on the motorway and slot in, using your mirrors and indicators.
  • The speed limit is usually 70mph, but there are occasions when signs tell you that there’s a lower speed limit in force.
  • Keep left when you can. Use the outside lanes only when you need to overtake.
  • Overtake only on the right of other cars, unless you’re crawling in a traffic jam.
  • Don’t use the hard shoulder unless you have a breakdown or you are directed to do so. It’ is illegal to use it otherwise.
  • Signs on central reservations apply to all lanes. Signs above the road on gantries can apply only to the lanes they’ are over.
  • Don’t tailgate, and leave even more room between you and other vehicles if it’s wet, icy or foggy.
  • Get in the left-hand lane in good time before you reach your exit junction.

 

How can I stay safe when driving on the motorway at night?

Driving on long, straight, largely boring roads at night comes with the added risk of tiredness and reduced visibility.

Some motorways aren’t lit at night, making it more difficult to see other drivers.

To stay safe, you must switch your headlights on half an hour after sunset and keep them on for an hour after sunrise.

You should also switch your lights on when visibility is reduced below 100 metres due to rain, snow, or fog.

Tiredness on the motorway could be a real danger, too. The Highway Code says that you should take a break of at least 15 minutes for every two hours you’re driving.

You can’t lump these all into one, either. Two hours is the maximum amount of time you should be on the road.

Motorway service stations are set up at a decent space between one another. You should be no more than 30 minutes away from one at any point.

 

Motorway reflective studs explained 

When driving at night, use the colour of the reflective studs to guide you.

  • Red - Hard shoulder diversion
  • Amber - Central reservation division 
  • White - Mid-lane division
  • Green - Slip road division 

 

Smart motorways and speed cameras

By default, the speed limit on a motorway is 70 mph for most vehicles.

Some motorways use an Active Traffic Management system – these are also known as smart motorways. These use variable speed limits that show up on signs overhead or on the side of the road.

There are two kinds of motorway speed sign:

  • If the speed limit is in a red ring, that’s a mandatory speed limit

  • If the speed limit is surrounded by flashing amber lights, it’s an advisory speed limit based on traffic and weather conditions

As well as speed management, smart motorways also allow you to drive on the hard shoulder in specific circumstances.

These should be clearly indicated on the overhead signs. If you see a red cross above the hard shoulder, this means you should only use it in emergencies. As we mentioned, if you drive in one of these lanes and it isn't an emergency you could land yourself with a £100 fine and three points on your licence.

These smart motorways also have a number of speed cameras in the overhead gantries. If you’re caught speeding on a motorway, you could be fined at least 150% of your weekly salary.

 

Can learner drivers drive on motorways?

Learner drivers have been allowed to drive on the motorway as part of their lessons since June 2018.

To be able to drive on the motorway, learners have to be:

  • Accompanied by an approved driving instructor
  • Driving a car with fitted dual controls

This isn’t a compulsory part of regular driving lessons. But if new drivers want to hone their skills further, the Pass Plus course does include motorway driving lessons.

If you’ve just passed your test, it might be worth considering a new driver car insurance policy to cover you while building up your experience.