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Guide to driving on motorways

Written By Andrew Brady

M1 motorway
  • We explain all you need to know about driving on motorways
  • Is there a minimum motorway speed limit?
  • Find out what different coloured road studs mean

Driving on the motorway is a fact of motoring life for all of us. Up to a fifth of drivers regularly use our motorway network and it is continually evolving. In 2018, learner drivers were allowed onto motorways, and smart motorways are continuously being rolled out across the country.

Read on for some top tips on how to drive on the motorway and learn about what you should do if you breakdown, on both regular and smart motorways.

What are the lanes on a motorway for?

Most of Britain’s 2300 miles of motorway are three lanes wide. It’s easy to think of them as the fast lane, middle lane and slow lane. But driving experts such as the police and motoring organisations like the AA prefer that they’re called lanes one, two and three.

Lane one is the furthest to the left, next to the hard shoulder. It’s the lane we should be in if the road is clear, whatever speed we’re travelling at. Lane two is in the middle. This is an overtaking lane for getting past cars in lane one. And lane three, the one nearest the central reservation, is for overtaking cars in lane two.

After passing slower moving cars, we should always move to the left if the road is clear, according to the experts. Drivers are advised to always use their indicators to show what they’re planning to do.

Which vehicles can use which lanes?

There are some vehicles that can’t use lane three of the motorway. These are trucks that are heavier than 7.5 tonnes, a goods vehicle that’s between 3.5 and 7.5 tonnes and has a speed limiter, any vehicle towing a trailer and any speed-limited vehicle that carries more than eight people.

There are also vehicles that can’t use the motorway altogether, usually because they’re deemed too slow. The Highway Code lists these in detail.

What the different coloured lane studs mean

The markers between lanes on motorways are designed to help drivers when visibility is poor. There are red studs between the main carriageway and the hard shoulder. White studs split the lanes up while orange studs mark the boundary between lane 3 and the central reservation. There are green studs on motorway slip roads.

Motorway speed limits

The speed limit on the motorway is 70mph. There is no minimum speed limit, although the police might want a word if you’re travelling at 35mph.

The big signs on gantries above the roads that show speed limits with orange flashing lights around them are advisories. You can’t be fined if you ignore them. However, you can if you ignore a speed limit sign surrounded by a red ring.

Variable speed limits are a new addition to the UK’s motorways. The thinking is that by slowing traffic slightly during busy times, it makes it easier to keep the flow at a constant speed. In turn this is supposed to cut down on those phantom traffic jams when the traffic comes to a halt for no apparent reason.

What to do when you break down on a motorway

Although motorways are among our safest roads, breaking down on them is very dangerous. The first thing to do is pull onto the hard shoulder with your hazard warning lights on. People think of the hard shoulder as a safe place; it’s anything but, so only stop on it in a real emergency.

Once you’ve come to a halt, get everyone out of the car quickly, ideally through the passenger side door so they’re away from traffic.

Once everyone’s out of the car – everyone that is apart from pets, they must stay in the car – stand on the other side of the barrier a clear distance away from moving traffic. Walk back the way you’ve come 10 metres or so. That way, if anyone crashes into your car, you should be safe from flying debris.

Even if your car has suffered from a puncture and you could ordinarily change a wheel in 10 minutes flat, don’t even attempt it on the hard shoulder. It’s far too dangerous being that close to speeding traffic.

Then ring for help. If you’re lucky, you’ll have stopped near one of the emergency phones. This will connect you with Highways England which runs the motorways. They will know exactly where you are from which phone you’re using and will dispatch a traffic officer to help you.

If you’re not near one of the motorway phones, use your mobile phone to call the police or your breakdown service. You need to tell them exactly where you are if you can, at the very least which junctions you’re between.

If it’s a complicated problem, motorway breakdown assistance will tow you to the next services where they can attempt to fix your car. For simple trouble, they’ll probably try to get you going there and then.

What to do if you breakdown on a smart motorway

Smart motorways use the hard shoulder as a live lane during peak hours. They’re controlled by signs and speed limits on the overhead gantries. If you breakdown on one it could be very dangerous because there’s nowhere to stop away from fast-moving traffic.

There are what are known as refuges for stranded vehicles, but these are as much as 1.6 miles apart. And if your car does conk out it might not have the good grace to do so within easy reach of a refuge.

With the hard shoulder being used by speeding cars, there’s nowhere safe to go if you break down. Official advice is for anyone whose car stops on a smart motorway to stay with their vehicle, keep their seatbelts on, switch the hazard lights on and ring for help.

There are doubts about safety on smart motorways with some high-profile campaigners wanting a rethink on the distance between refuges.

Learner drivers on the motorway

You never used to be able to drive on the motorway until you passed your driving test. Then, the powers-that-be realised they were preventing novice drivers getting valuable experience of a mainstay of modern motoring.

From June 2018, learners have been allowed on motorways as long as they’re accompanied by an accredited driving instructor in a dual-control car. However, learners still won’t have any of their driving test on the motorway.

Find out about the new Highway Code rules 2022

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