Drivers Fact Sheets

Driving On Motorways


Motorways are safer, than normal roads, but they are also faster. Sometimes things do happen quicker, and you have to concentrate.

When you are on the main carriageway of the motorway, remain in the first lane until you get used to the speed. If you need to overtake you must return to the first lane as soon as possible but only if its safe to do so! Many motorists try to stay in the overtaking lanes for normal driving. This is bad practice and causes inconvenience and tailbacks and annoys other users.

There are two types of motorway, rural and urban. You need to think of them as quiet and busy. Quiet motorways are boring, so you need to concentrate on the road and traffic conditions way ahead. Busy motorways need your attention all around you rather than just focused ahead.

Motorways are like dual carriageways only safer. They are safer because every motorway user is travelling in the same direction and at similar speeds. Another reason why motorways are safer is due to the fact that traffic is restricted to those who can make best use of it i.e. no pedestrians, cyclists, moped, no L drivers (except HGV), agricultural vehicles, and animals.

Motorways are also safer because there are no sharp bends, no oncoming traffic, no right turn, and no roundabouts. The lanes are always wide, and well marked, and are usually straight for long distances.

Remember you are not allowed to reverse, cross the central reservation, or to drive in the wrong direction on motorways.

On urban (busy) motorways each lane of traffic has an electronic signal system which applies to traffic in each lane. Care needs to be taken to make sure you know the various signals and what they mean. Motorway signs are being used with increasing frequency to warn you of hold ups or accidents ahead.

Motorway Accidents

Most motorway accidents are caused by one, or a combination of the following:

Following Too Closely

Over the years, many individuals and organisations (Including the Institute of Advanced motorists and some Chief Police Constables) have called for increases in motorway speed limits; however, others think that this would be a recipe for more accidents. Although higher speeds will inevitably increase the severity of accidents, speed in itself is not usually the cause of motorway accidents.

Whatever your views on speed limits, driving more slowly will not necessarily reduce your risk of an accident on the motorway.The real problem lies in the way that drivers use speed on motorways. Consider the following figures:

At 70 mph your car covers about 35 metres per second. From the moment that the brakes are applied it will take somewhere in the region of 75 metres to stop (assuming a well maintained vehicle and a good, dry road)

Most drivers have a reaction time of over half a second (this is before they touch the brakes). Tired, ill or distracted drivers can take well over a second to react to danger

Given the information above, it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out that drivers who only leave a separation gap of three or four car lengths when traveling at 70 mph will not have a chance of stopping if faced with a sudden emergency.

By keeping a one-metre gap for each mile per hour of your speed, or applying the ‘two-second rule’ you will do a lot to reduce your risk. Another major benefit of maintaining a safe distance is that it will give you plenty of time and space for safe, well planned lane changes – it’s estimated that up to 25% of motorway accidents are caused by reckless or late lane change manoeuvres.


The problem with vehicle separation becomes even worse in poor weather conditions. On a wet road your stopping distance will often double, but that’s only part of the problem. In order to achieve this stopping distance, your wheels need to be in contact with the road surface.

Because of the width of motorway carriageways it is not possible to achieve the same degree of camber that is found on narrower roads; this means that in a heavy rainstorm, water will not drain as quickly and there is a possibility of standing water This can cause your front wheels to lose their grip on the road surface ie aquaplaning.

Stay safe in the wet by reducing your speed and doubling your separation distance.

One of the biggest motorway killers is fog, caused by  some drivers travelling too fast and too close, leading to the inevitable pile up when one of them brakes.  Drivers will always hurtle along foggy motorways as if it were a bright summers day so the best advice is to stay off the motorway when it is foggy.

Tiredness And Lack Of Concentration

As cars become more sophisticated, the potential for driver distraction is perhaps greater than ever before. Mobile phones, global positioning systems, route finders, sophisticated in-car entertainment, etc., all require the driver’s attention; however, tiredness remains one of the most dangerous blocks to motorway concentration.

Many of our motorways now have signs reminding us that: ‘Tiredness kills – Take a break’. The causes of sleepiness vary from driver to driver but no one is immune. It could be the heavy meal and couple of drinks you had earlier, or medication from a doctor or pharmacy (many over-the-counter medicines cause drowsiness).

Long straight stretches of motorway result in some drivers succumbing to the hypnotic effect of the white lines flashing by, especially if they are bored or tired.

If you feel drowsy, pull off the motorway at the next exit or service area for a break. A caffeinated drink and a twenty-minute catnap will help to keep you to recover.

Problems Associated With Breakdowns

Sometimes, because of breakdowns or other emergencies, drivers are forced to park on the motorway. It’s very important to keep your wits about you in this situation and get off the main carriageway to a place of safety – namely, the hard shoulder.

Although we refer to the hard shoulder as a place of safety, it is actually one of the riskiest places on the motorway. If you are forced to stop on the hard shoulder, switch on your hazard lights, inform the authorities immediately and stay well clear of your vehicle while waiting for help.

Even if you can fix the problem yourself, for example changing a wheel, you will be a lot safer if there is a conspicuous police or breakdown patrol vehicle providing a protective shield behind your car.

Joining And Leaving A Motorway

When joining a motorway you usually join from a roundabout or a main road by means of a slip road. This leads to an acceleration lane. The rule here is not to interfere with the traffic already on the motorway. Make sure your speed is the same as the traffic already on the motorway.

Vehicles already on the motorway usually realise you need to join the main carriageway and they try and move over to the other lane. (This is not always possible if the traffic is busy). This makes room for you to join the first lane of the motorway.

Mirrors and signals must be used correctly to avoid interfering with the following traffic. Full and proper observation as you enter usually involves looking over your right shoulder as well as using your door mirrors. Don’t rely on mirrors alone.

To get off the motorway the normal procedure is to look for the first advance warning sign (1 mile from the exit). This sign gives the exit number and the road number.

At half a mile from the exit a second sign identifies the towns for the exit. Then at 300 yards from the deceleration lane there is a three line countdown marker, (at this point you should begin to signal left to say you are turning off – but don’t slow down yet), followed by the 200 yd and 100 yd marker signs. Only when you have crossed into the deceleration lane should you begin to slow down.

Once you get back on to ordinary roads again, you need to watch your speed until you are acclimatised to the new lower speeds on the road. Don’t forget too, that these roads are likely to have roundabouts, oncoming traffic, and sharp bends on them.

Breaking Down On The Motorway

Hopefully if your vehicle is well maintained and fuelled up, you should be in no danger of breaking down on the motorway, but we all know that even a car which is only a few hours old can still break down.

If you do break down then the hard shoulder is there to help you. When you are stopping on the hard shoulder (remember, only use the hard shoulder in an emergency), try to stop at one of the emergency telephones. This will save you time if you have to walk to the phone.

Switch on your hazard lights and try to stop as near to the left as possible. If you have passengers get them out of the car, off the hard shoulder, and as far away from danger as possible. Do this before you go to use the phone. The phone is always within half a mile from any spot on the motorway. Look at the arrows on the nearest post, like the one in the picture on the left. These will tell you the direction to walk to the nearest phone. The phones are free to use, and connect you straight to the police who control that stretch of motorway.

When you return to your vehicle to wait for help, do not get back into the car, but stay on the embankment, or as far away from the traffic as possible. If you have a mobile phone it’s O.K. to use this initially, but the police do prefer you to use the roadside phones to confirm your exact location.

Remember that motorways are safe, but they are fast, you need to concentrate because things happen quicker than a normal road.

To Summarise: If you break down don’t panic, just follow these simple steps:

STEP 1: If your car breaks down, move onto the hard shoulder and turn on your hazard warning lights.

STEP 2: Get out from the vehicle using the doors nearest to the verge and keep well away from the traffic. Lock all doors except the passenger door nearest to you.

STEP 3: Call for assistance by using the emergency phones, which are placed on the hard shoulder. Marker posts indicating the direction of the nearest emergency telephone are situated every 100 metres on the hard shoulder. Phones are 1,000 metres apart so you never need to walk more than 500m.

STEP 4: Never cross the carriageway or a slip road to use an emergency telephone.

STEP 5: After you return to your vehicle, wait on the grass verge or nearby bank well away from the traffic until the emergency services arrive.

STEP 6: Don’t accept help from passers-by. If someone approaches, get into the car, lock your doors and speak through a small gap in the window. It is illegal for a passer-by to stop and help someone on a motorway.

Lane Discipline

When driving along motorways always remain in the left lane unless you are travelling faster than traffic ahead of you and it is safe to move over to the right lanes. If you use these lanes you must return to the left lane as soon as it is safe to do so.

It is bad practice to try and stay in the overtaking lanes for normal driving. This annoys other users because they can see that you are avoiding the empty lanes on the left, or never using your mirrors to see the tailbacks that you are causing. Remember the two-second rule. Four seconds will give you time to react easily and you will be more relaxed.

Remember The Ten Tips

1.    Ensure the car is well maintained, has sufficient fuel and oil, has correct tyre pressures and the tyres are in good condition (including spare).

2.    Plan your route in advance; never look at maps whilst driving.

3.    Take special care when joining a motorway. You must give way to motorway traffic. Beware of the ‘blind spot’ factor.

4.    Observe the speed limits and motorway signals. These warn of dangers ahead, for example an accident, broken down vehicle, poor weather conditions, flooding, slippery road surface etc.

5.    Always be aware of the cars around you, be prepared for unexpected movement. Concentration and frequent use of mirrors are doubly important on motorways because of higher traffic volumes.

6.    Use your mirrors and observe lane discipline. Always use the left hand lane where possible, the other lanes are overtaking lanes and should be used as such. Overtake only on the right unless in a queue and always indicate when changing lanes.

7.    Take extra care when approaching intersections where traffic is joining the motorway and around roadworks.

8.    Always ensure that there is at least two seconds between you and the car in front. Leave at least four seconds in bad weather. Take care in foggy conditions; slow down and use your lights.

9.    Take regular breaks at service areas, but never on the hard shoulder – if you feel sleepy, get off the motorway at the first opportunity.

10.    Pull onto the hard shoulder and put on warning lights. Leave your vehicle from a left hand door. Call for help from an emergency phone and wait on the verge.


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