Motorway driving

A recent survey found 40% of learners actually experience motorway driving before their test. Learner drivers are now able to experience motorway driving before they take their practical driving test in England, Scotland and Wales.

Both learners and new drivers alike often find motorway driving intimidating compared to city roads. The first step to overcoming your fear of motorway driving is realising it's okay to feel this way.

Compared to the slower speeds of most A and B roads, motorways can seem intimidating. Everyone's moving faster compared to the slower speeds of most A and B roads and it can seem like there isn’t much time to make decisions. 

Motorway  with yellow sky

The increased speed of motorway travel doesn't necessarily make it more dangerous. Risky behaviours which could lead to accidents - such as tailgating and speeding - can easily be avoided. We have put together a comprehensive guide so you know exactly what to do when you drive on a motorway.

In this article:

Motorway lessons

Learner drivers (or existing drivers looking for a confidence boost) can now take motorway driving lessons with an approved driving instructor in a dual-controlled car.

Motorway lessons with an instructor will give you the necessary skills to drive on motorways with confidence. Advantages include: 

  • Developing a broader range of experience.
  • Learning how to safely enter and exit motorways.
  • Getting comfortable with driving at higher speeds.
  • Practicing lane changing and overtaking.

If you're not a new driver, you can still take qualified driver lessons to build your knowledge. 

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How to drive on motorways

It's important to be aware of the speed traffic is moving at, and the space between all of the vehicles, as this helps the traffic flow. Try to avoid sudden braking - this will put you, and the other drivers around you, at risk.

You can keep yourself safe on the motorway by remembering these key rules:

  • Motorways are defined by having 3 or more lanes. Keep left unless overtaking and return to the left-hand lane after overtaking. Don’t “middle- lane hog” and move left when you are finished overtaking.
  • Leave plenty of space between you and the other cars around you – don't forget that stopping distances will increase if the weather's bad.
  • Indicate before you change lanes and give other drivers time to see what you're doing.
  • Control your speed and keep an eye out for variable speed limits on signs or gantries.
  • Check your mirrors more often – at high speeds, things can change very quickly.
  • Take extra care around lorries and other large vehicles. If you can’t see the driver or their mirrors, they probably can’t see you.
  • Anticipate what's coming next by scanning the road ahead visually.
  • Only use the hard shoulder for emergencies.
  • Take regular breaks so you don't drive tired.
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How to drive on smart motorways

A growing proportion of the motorway network is being converted to ‘smart’ motorways, with variable speed limits and lane control by overhead gantries. The basics of using these stay the same. As long as you keep left (except when overtaking) and pay attention to variable signs, driving on a smart motorway shouldn't be any more complicated than a regular one. 

Most smart motorways will also have either a hard shoulder that can be opened as a running lane at peak times, or no hard shoulder at all, but emergency areas spaced at regular intervals.

A lot of drivers worry about what to do if they break down on a smart motorway and there's no hard shoulder, but it's very simple. Follow our guide on what to do if you break down.

Tips for driving on smart motorways:

  • They have variable speed limits to maintain traffic flow when volumes are high, or for safety reasons.
  • Emergency refuge areas are located every 2.5km.
  • Look out for the red ‘X’ sign, meaning a lane is closed due to an accident or obstruction.
  • A solid white line indicates the hard shoulder. Don't drive on it unless directed to.
  • If your vehicle is having problems, exit the smart motorway as soon as possible.
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How to join using a motorway slip road

Motorway slip roads are designed to allow easy entrance into the traffic.

  • Use the slip road to gradually build up your speed until it matches the traffic on the motorway.
  • Look for a suitable gap in the left-hand lane.
  • Check your mirrors and signal before you join the motorway.

Joining a motorway is covered by rule 259 of The Highway Code. It's important to remember that traffic on the motorway has priority, so don't force your way in. And avoid stopping at the end of the slip road unless you’re queuing to join slow-moving traffic.

While entering the motorway, you should also avoid crossing solid white lines. Also, don’t drive on the hard shoulder. 

Some slip roads continue as an extra lane on the motorway, or have a lane that will do so. This will be accompanied by road signs explaining how the slip road functions. 

If the slip road continues as a lane on the motorway, you don’t need to give way to traffic already on the motorway. It’s common to have slip roads where the left-hand lane continues as a new motorway lane, but you have to give way if approaching via the right-hand lane. 

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Motorway slip road

How to enter the motorway

If you’re joining the motorway at either its very beginning or end, then you’ll be joining it using a junction such as a roundabout.

It’s more likely you’ll be joining it via a road which feeds in from the left – known as a slip road. This runs along the side of the motorway for enough distance for you to get your speed up. Usually, the slip road and carriageway are divided by a length of short, broken white lines. This line is also accompanied by green cats’ eyes, which will illuminate in the dark. 

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How to leave the motorway

Unless you’re exiting the motorway where it terminates, or via a lane leading directly off the motorway, you’ll most likely be using a slip road. 

Rule 272 of The Highway Code covers leaving the motorway. It advises that you should watch for signs informing you that you’re near the exit. You should move into the left-hand lane well in advance of reaching the exit. 

On approaching the exit, indicate left in good time. When you cross onto the slip road, reduce your speed. Many slip roads or link roads have sharp bends, so you should make sure you’re not going too quickly. 

When leaving the motorway or using a link road between motorways, be aware you might be going faster than you think. The Highway Code rule 273 states that “50 mph may feel like 30 mph”, and advises you check the speedometer and adjust your speed accordingly. 

All UK motorways have numbered junctions, if you’re planning to leave via a junction, it’s good to know in advance which number junction you will exit via. In advance of junctions, there are road signs which list the main destinations from the upcoming exit to help you.

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Junctions explained on the motorway

When approaching a junction, you’ll always see signals or signs ahead of the junction. There may be direction signs placed over the road. For example, where motorways meet, you may well see the destination motorway names above the corresponding lanes.

Certain lanes may lead directly off the motorway, so make sure you’re in the lane that goes in the direction indicated by the sign. If you need to change lanes, be sure to do so in good time. 

How to overtake on a motorway

Overtaking is commonplace on a motorway and is the same as overtaking on dual carriageways and other multi-lane roads.

  • Never overtake on the left, unless traffic is moving in queues and the queue on your right is moving more slowly than the queue you're in.
  • Use the mirror, signal, manoeuvre (MSM) routine and remember that for overtaking, you need to do it twice.
  • Be aware that heavy vehicles (HGVs) are mainly limited to 50mph so they are nearly always in the left lane as they can’t overtake other vehicles.
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Can you stop on a motorway?

The simple answer is no, unless you absolutely have to in an emergency. For more details, see Highway Code (rule 270).

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Motorway picture

What is the hard shoulder?

A lot of new drivers get confused by the ‘hard shoulder’. The hard shoulder is a lane that runs along the left-hand side of the motorway, shouldering the carriageway. It’s typically a standard 3.3 metres in width, which is wide enough for large lorries to pull over without protruding into the left-hand lane. 

There’s usually a solid reflective white line dividing the hard shoulder and the carriageway. It’s also ridged, which makes a rumbling noise if your wheels straddle it – serving as a warning if you’ve drifted too far to the left. 

There also tend to be red cats’ eyes on the white line as a visual indicator when it’s dark. These are replaced with green cats’ eyes where a slip road crosses the hard shoulder, indicating where you can exit or join the motorway. 

Can I drive on the hard shoulder? 

Rule 264 of The Highway Code states: 

“You MUST NOT drive on the hard shoulder except in an emergency or if directed to do so by the police, traffic officers in uniform or by signs.” 

The “MUST NOT” means that driving on the hard shoulder is against the law. But this isn't always the case and some congested motorways may open up the hard shoulder to be used.

Here are some situations which might cause you to use the hard shoulder:

Using the hard shoulder when directed to do so by signs

In general, you should only ever use the hard shoulder in an emergency or when you break down, but due to traffic congestion on a limited number of motorway sections the hard shoulder can be used as an extra lane. You'll know if you can use the hard shoulder as a normal lane if you see a speed limit sign above the hard shoulder.

Using the hard shoulder in an emergency 

The hard shoulder is reserved for legitimate emergencies. This can include stopping after a collision, or if the car has a puncture or mechanical breakdown. This also includes if any of the passengers or driver are having a medical emergency. 

The hard shoulder should not be used for toilet breaks, or stopping to take a phone call, for example. These should be kept for rest stops, such as motorway services. 

Using the hard shoulder because you've broken down

Find out what to do if you break down on a motorway.

Using the hard shoulder when directed to do so by police 

If police or traffic officers are directing you to drive on the hard shoulder, you’re legally obliged to do so. This might happen if other lanes are closed due to an accident, for example.

Bear in mind that – if you have to walk on the hard shoulder – it’s preferable to walk against the flow of traffic. This is because any potential danger posed by other vehicles will be in your line of vision, rather than behind you. 

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If you're still feeling anxious about motorways…

We hope this guide has helped but you still feel unsure we recommend getting motorway specific lessons. You can do this any time from getting a licence and it could be exactly what you need to overcome your fear.

We also recommend:

  • Planning your journey – use our Route Planner, and make sure you have the correct postcodes in your sat nav.
  • If you can, take a friend or family member with you.
  • Travelling alone? Give yourself plenty of time, let people know your ETA, and pack some calming music to help you relax on the drive.
  • Don't drink lots of caffeine before you leave – stick to herbal teas and fruit juice. Caffeine acts as a stimulant – it's helpful in small doses, but if you drink it to excess, you could start to feel jumpy or nervous.
  • Make sure you've had something to eat and you've got some water for the journey - this will keep your blood sugars up and make sure you're not distracted by hunger or thirst.

If you suffer from mild to moderate anxiety, you're fine to drive.

However, if you have severe anxiety, you may have to contact the DVLA and tell them about your illness.