Driving on the motorway for the first time

Driving on the motorway for the first time can be a nerve-wracking experience. But it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how to have a safe motorway experience.

Driving on the motorway for the first time can be a nerve-wracking experience. But it doesn’t have to be. Here’s how to have a safe motorway experience.

Rory Reid
Car and technology expert
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Last Updated 16 SEPTEMBER 2022

How to be a more confident motorway driver

Many drivers are so nervous of motorways they avoid using them altogether. But, in fact, UK motorways aren’t as dangerous as you might think. In fact, Highways England says they’re among the safest roads in the world.

Learner drivers in England, Scotland and Wales can take motorway driving lessons to build their confidence behind the wheel. But, even for experienced drivers, motorway driving can be intimidating. That’s why it’s worth knowing the rules of motorway driving and how to keep yourself, your passengers and other road users safe.

Once you get your driving licence, you won’t have the safety net of a driving instructor beside you, so practise your skills as much as you can in the run-up to your test. It can help to find a quieter stretch of motorway near home to get used to the road layout and signs before going on a longer journey where you might end up driving on busier stretches of motorway by yourself.

If you’re serious about improving your skills, you could consider a Pass Plus course. This is an extra driving qualification that should make you a safer driver – and could even lower your insurance premium.

5 tips for driving on the motorway

Here are five ways to make motorway driving safer:

1. Prepare your car – check your lights, tyre pressure, oil levels, brake fluid and screen wash before you set off on a long journey. Make sure you’ve got plenty of fuel, too. Motorway petrol stations tend to be significantly more expensive than those elsewhere.

2. Plan your route – try to memorise the junction numbers where you’ll be joining and leaving the motorway. That way you’ll know when you need to be in the inside lane before an exit. There’s always a chance your satnav will let you down at precisely the wrong moment, so it pays to be prepared.

3. Avoid distractions – give your driving your undivided attention. Don’t let yourself get distracted by the radio, your phone, or your passengers’ conversation, for example.

4. Check your mirrors – always be aware of what’s going on around you, as cars or motorbikes can approach quickly from behind. Indicate with plenty of time to spare, and always glance over your shoulder before changing lanes to make sure there’s nothing in your blind spot.

5. Take a break – tiredness is said to cause up to 20% of all UK road accidents. Falling asleep is a particular risk on motorways, where journeys can be long and the driving monotonous – especially in slower sections.

That’s why it’s a good idea to take a break at least every two hours if you’re on a long journey. A 15-minute coffee break could help you feel refreshed, but don’t continue driving if you still feel tired.

Joining and leaving the motorway

If you’re new to motorways, it’s tempting to slow down or even stop before joining one. But joining the motorway at a slower speed than the traffic can be dangerous. If weather and driving conditions allow you to, you should build up speed on the slip road and merge safely onto the motorway when there’s a safe gap to do so.

Don’t forget to indicate and check your blind spot. And if you need to slow down, adjust your speed in the slip lane, so you can avoid having to brake or stop.

When you leave a motorway, move into the correct lane with time to spare, so that you don’t have to cut across the traffic. The exit should be clearly signposted, with countdown markers showing you how close you are. Each bar represents 100 yards. Indicate to show other drivers you’re leaving the motorway, and try to avoid braking until you’re on the slip road.

The rules of motorway driving

  • Motorways are different to other roads. As well as keeping you safe, understanding the rules can help you avoid committing traffic offences.
  • Unless you’re overtaking, stay in the inside lane. Hogging the middle lane is an offence and you could end up with an on-the-spot fine of £100 and three points on your licence. Once you’ve overtaken a vehicle, pull back into the inside lane.
  • Remember your stopping distances and give yourself plenty of time to react.
  • Allow a minimum two-second gap between you and the car in front. If the road is wet, make it at least a four-second gap. If the surface is icy, that gap should be even bigger.
  • Don’t go over the speed limit. You won’t always be able to travel at 70mph due to roadworks, accidents or bad weather, and watch out for speed-reduction signs.
  • Never stop on the hard shoulder unless it’s an emergency. According to government figures, more than 100  people are killed or injured on the hard shoulder every year.

For more information, read the motorway section of the Highway Code.

How to drive on a smart motorway

Smart motorways use technology to control and manage the traffic on busy stretches. They do this by changing the speed limit at busy times or opening the hard shoulder to traffic to keep traffic moving. You’ll know you’re on a smart motorway if you see electronic signs offering instructions overhead.

Motorway dos and don’ts:

  • Keep an eye out for changing speed limits.
  • Don’t drive on the hard shoulder unless you’re told to. A solid white line on the left tells you it’s the hard shoulder. If it’s a driving lane, you’ll see a broken white line.
  • A red ‘X’ sign means the lane is closed, so don’t drive in it.
  • If your vehicle develops a problem, or a warning light comes on, pull into the leftmost lane and exit the motorway as soon as you can. If you break down on the side of the motorway, immediately put your hazard lights on.
  • If you need to pull over, look for an emergency area, the hard shoulder on a junction slip road, or a motorway service area. You shouldn’t have far to travel, as these should be a maximum of 1.5 miles apart.

Frequently asked questions

Are smart motorways safe?

According to government statistics, smart motorways have reduced the casualty rate by 28% and are the safest roads in the country in terms of death rates. However, there has been considerable controversy over all lane running motorways, which don’t have a hard shoulder. And in November 2021, a committee of MPs recommended pausing the smart motorway rollout until five years of safety data is available and safety improvements have been made to existing stretches. This makes it all the more important to understand the rules of driving on a smart motorway, particularly what to do if you break down on one.

Which are safer, motorways or country roads?

It’s easy to assume that motorways are more dangerous than rural roads, but an average three people die each day on country roads. That’s according to THINK!, the Department for Transport’s road-safety campaign. Its figures show that 60% of people killed on Britain’s roads were driving in rural roads, so there’s perhaps less reason to be nervous about motorways.

How can I overcome my anxiety about motorway driving?

Vehophobia (fear of driving) is surprisingly common. If you’re not confident about motorway driving, then you’re not alone. If it gets so bad it impacts your ability to enjoy life, look into cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which could help.

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