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Motorway driving: How to stay safe

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Motorway at night by Matthew Wilkinson

M62 by Matthew Wilkinson is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

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Keep yourself clued in so you stay legal 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 21% 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.

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.

What each lane on a motorway is for

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 – normal driving

  • Lane two – middle lane - overtaking

  • Lane three – right-hand lane -  overtaking

Certain kinds of vehicle can never use the right-hand lane:

  • 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 GOV.UK.

Motorway reflective studs

Motorway reflective studs (L-R): Red, green, white, amber

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Motorway reflective studs

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

Stud colour

Marking

Stud colour Stud colour Stud colour

Red

Marking Marking Marking

Hard shoulder division

Stud colour Stud colour Stud colour

Amber

Marking Marking Marking

Central reservation division

Stud colour Stud colour Stud colour

White

Marking Marking Marking

Mid-lane division

Stud colour Stud colour Stud colour

Green

Marking Marking Marking

Slip road division

Joining / leaving 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 may be higher than your 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 (otherwise 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.

If you’re moving from the right-hand lane towards the left, take extra care. There may 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 is fine. But don’t start weaving in and out of your lane to get ahead.

Variable speed limit camera

Variable speed limit camera

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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 will be clearly indicated on the overhead signs. If you see a red cross above the hard shoulder, this means it should only be used in emergencies.

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

Motorway driving tips

  • Keep your distance from the car in front. Remember to leave a two-second gap between you and them.

  • 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. If you want to take your skills to the next level though, then a Pass Plus course might be for you.

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