Hard shoulder

What is the hard shoulder and when can you use it?

You may have seen or heard the term ‘hard shoulder’ but aren't sure what it means. Don't fret – we'll explain what the hard shoulder is and how smart motorways affect it on this page. 

If you’ve broken down on the hard shoulder, you can get assistance from us – just call 03330 046 046. If you haven’t broken down but would like to be covered in case it does happen, visit our breakdown cover page.

Motorway angle shot 

What is a hard shoulder?

A hard shoulder is a strip of road that runs along the edge of the motorway to the left of the left-hand lane.

It’s indicated by a solid white line often containing red reflective studs, which divides the hard shoulder from the main carriageway. To stop you from veering too far left and ending up on the hard shoulder, the white line contains ridges which rumble your car’s steering and wheels to warn you that you’ve crossed over into the hard shoulder lane.

The standard width of the hard shoulder in the UK is 3.3m, which allows enough room for larger vehicles to stop in an emergency without obstructing traffic in the next lane.

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Why are there hard shoulders on motorways?

The hard shoulder is a place to stop your car away from the flow of traffic if you’ve broken down or have an emergency and need to stop your vehicle immediately.

It also functions as an emergency lane, in which emergency vehicles can bypass traffic to get to the scene of an accident.

When can you use the hard shoulder?

Unless you have an emergency and need to stop your car, you aren’t allowed to stop on the hard shoulder (or emergency area if you're on a smart motorway). It’s an offence and you may be penalised by the police.

If you have a puncture, medical emergency, mechanical breakdown, or items you are transporting on your car or in your trailer have come loose, you may use the hard shoulder. The hard shoulder should not be used for bathroom breaks, to take a nap when you’re tired, or to stop and make or receive a phone call.

There are some exceptions which will allow you to drive on the shoulder, these include:

  • Being instructed to do so by a police officer or a Highways Agency patrol officer – either because of an incident or collision on the road ahead.

  • Roadworks – a yellow sign will direct you to use the hard shoulder due to roadworks ahead. Take note that you’ll need to move back into a driving lane once the roadworks have come to an end.

  • Smart motorways– the hard shoulder is sometimes converted into a live lane on smart motorways to help alleviate traffic congestion, but there will be signs indicating it’s okay to use it.

How do smart motorways affect the hard shoulder?

Smart motorways use traffic management systems to help with congestion. These traffic management systems come in the form of live-updating signs above each lane on the motorway. Occasionally the sign above the hard shoulder lane will change to indicate that you’re now able to drive in that lane.

It’s important to always pay attention to these signs. For example, if there’s a lot of traffic and the hard shoulder is converted to a live lane for vehicles to use, it’s unsafe for you to stop your vehicle on the hard shoulder even in the event of a breakdown. Instead, you should try to make it to an emergency area (highlighted by road signs and yellow tarmac).

Even if all lanes are open to traffic, the left-most lane can change at any time. Look out for any updates that show a red ‘X’ signalling for you to move across, as this means the traffic has been blocked from using that lane, or the hard shoulder has come back into effect.

On smart motorways, you'll notice that there are emergency areas (EAs). These are small areas to the left side of the motorway marked by signage and yellow tarmac. You can use these in case of emergency breakdown, but since they're often so short it won't be possible to rejoin the motorway if traffic is travelling at normal speed. In this case, you are required to use the on-site callbox to contact National Highways Control Centre to arrange a lane closure.

How to use the hard shoulder

You should park to the far left of the road if you need to stop on the hard shoulder and put your hazard lights on to warn passing drivers that you are stationary. If it’s safe to do so, all passengers should exit the car using the left-hand doors to stay well-clear of passing vehicles, before waiting behind the barrier for help to arrive.

Make sure to call us first on 03330 046 046, whether you have cover or not. If you can’t get through to us or the emergency services via mobile phone, you’ll need to walk to an emergency phone to get help. Emergency phones are located along the hard shoulder, and it’s legal to walk on the shoulder to get to one. Arrows on the white marker posts will direct you to the closest emergency call box. 

Using an emergency phone on the motorway

You will find an emergency (SOS) phone every mile along the length of the hard shoulder on the motorway, and they are in bright orange boxes so you can spot them easily. They’re free to use, and automatically connect to the National Highways or police.

What if you break down in a live lane?

According to National Highways' own analysis, stopping in a live lane of an ALR (an all-lane running smart motorway) more than triples the danger to drivers when compared to stopping on a traditional motorway with a continuous hard shoulder.

If you break down in a live lane, you'll need to call 999 straight away so they can close the lane you're in. In this case, stay in your vehicle with your seat belt on and all your lights on. 

If you break down in a live lane, phone 999. If you’re not in an emergency and would like to be covered, visit our breakdown cover page to get started.

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