Motorway driving: how to stay safe

A rush of cars on a busy motorway at sunset

Keep yourself clued up 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 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.


Proposed changes to the Highway Code

In response to campaigns around the controversial smart motorways network, a number of changes to the Highway Code have been 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.


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

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

Hard shoulder division
Central reservation division
Mid-lane division
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 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.


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 until half an hour before 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.


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.

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.


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.