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Driving on a motorway for the first time

Driving on a motorway for the first time can be daunting. But it doesn’t have to be something you fear.

Our helpful guide covers rules and tips for driving on the motorway, so you can feel safe and confident behind the wheel, wherever your journey takes you.

Driving on a motorway for the first time can be daunting. But it doesn’t have to be something you fear.

Our helpful guide covers rules and tips for driving on the motorway, so you can feel safe and confident behind the wheel, wherever your journey takes you.

Written by
Rory Reid
Car and technology expert
Last Updated
14 AUGUST 2023
8 min read
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How to drive on the motorway

In some ways, driving on the motorway is the same as driving on any other road. You’ll need to obey the speed limit, follow any signs and road markings, watch out for hazards, use your mirrors and check your blind spots to make sure you’re aware of other vehicles around you.

However, with multiple lanes of traffic and higher speeds, it’s no wonder many of us avoid driving on the motorway. To make sure you feel safe and prepared when you enter the slip road for the first time, it’s important to understand how to enter and exit the motorway properly and which lane to use.

In this guide, we explain the motorway rules, and offer simple but effective tips for driving on the motorway.

9 tips for driving on the motorway

Here are nine tips to help you safely tackle driving on the motorway for the first time:

1. Prepare your car

Check your lights, tyre pressure, oil levels, brake fluid and screen wash before you set off. Our useful car safety checklist runs through the steps you can take to prepare for a long journey.

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 move over to 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. Learn your motorway signs

If you’re new to motorway driving, it’s a good idea to read up on the signs and signals you may encounter on the motorway to avoid any confusion in the moment that could cause you to panic or lose concentration.

Note that signs on the central reservation apply to all lanes. For information on the signs you’ll encounter on new smart motorways, we’ve got you covered below.

4. Stick to the left lane

Despite common misconceptions, there’s really no such thing as the ‘fast lane’. On a UK motorway, you should always drive in the left lane – also known as lane one – unless you are overtaking slower vehicles, or you need to give extra space to emergency vehicles on the hard shoulder.

5. 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.

6. 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.

7. Don’t tailgate

Remember, the faster you’re travelling, the longer it’ll take to stop, so leave plenty of space between you and the driver in front. People often use the two-second rule – which means that you should leave a two-second gap between you and the car in front.

However, when travelling at the national speed limit of 70mph, your stopping distance could be 96 metres, even in dry conditions. In that case you would need to leave a gap of at least three seconds.

8. Take a break

According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA) tiredness is thought to contribute to 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. Or any time that you start to feel sleepy or drowsy. A 15-minute coffee break could help you feel refreshed, but don’t continue driving if you still feel tired.

9. Adjust your speed on the slip road

Slip roads are there to enable you to speed up to match the flow of traffic in the left-hand lane when entering a motorway. Or to give you time to slow down to an appropriate speed before exiting the motorway.

How to safely join and leave the motorway

If you’re new to motorways, actually getting on to one can be the most terrifying part. 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.

While on the slip road, adjust your speed according to the flow of traffic. This typically means speeding up, but you may also need to slow down if there’s a traffic jam. Anticipate what’s ahead so you can avoid braking suddenly or stopping completely.

Merge safely onto the motorway when there’s a safe gap to do so. Remember that any vehicles already on the motorway have priority. And don’t forget to indicate and check your blind spot.

When you leave a motorway, move into the correct lane in good time, 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.

How to be a more confident motorway driver

Many drivers are so nervous of motorways they avoid using them altogether. But motorways are statistically the safest roads in the UK. In 2019, only about 6% of road fatalities happened on the motorway, despite the comparatively high volume of traffic.

To get a jump start on becoming a confident motorway driver, learner drivers in England, Scotland and Wales can choose to take motorway driving lessons to build their confidence behind the wheel. But even for experienced drivers, motorway driving can be intimidating.

Here are some tips to help keep motorway driving anxiety at bay:

  • Find a quiet stretch of motorway near home to practise on before going on any longer trips to help you get used to the road layout and signs.
  • Practise regularly at quieter times and gradually work towards longer journeys at busier times.
  • Open up about your anxiety to someone you trust and ask them to come along to help calm your nerves.
  • Keep plenty of space between you can the car in front, so you know if anything does happen, you’ll have plenty of time to react.
  • Focus on your driving, take calm, deep breaths and avoid distractions.
  • Try listening to some calm, relaxing music if it helps you to concentrate.

How to get additional driving experience

One of the best ways to build up driving confidence is to build up your experience. If you’re serious about improving your skills, you could consider a Pass Plus course. On Pass Plus courses you can gain experience of more complex driving situations, while accompanied by a specifically trained driving instructor.

Pass Plus courses should teach you to drive safely and confidently:

  • In complex urban situations
  • In bad weather
  • On rural roads
  • At night
  • On dual carriageways
  • On motorways.

Having this extra driving qualification that should make you a safer and more confident driver – and it could even lower your insurance premium.

The rules of the motorway

If you’re driving on the motorway for the first time, you’ll need to make sure you understand motorway rules. Not only to avoid committing travel offences, but also to keep yourself, your passengers and other road users safe.

Here are some rules of the motorway to keep in mind:

  • Unless you’re overtaking, stay in the inside (left) lane. Hogging the middle lane is classed as a careless driving 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. Be aware the stopping distance at 70mph is equivalent to 24 car lengths. Be aware that tailgating is also classed as careless driving.
  • Allow a minimum two-second gap between you and the car in front. If you’re driving at the national speed limit, make it three seconds. 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, on average, one in 12 motorway fatalities occur on the hard shoulder.

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.

Smart 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 April 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced that plans to build new smart motorways would not go ahead, due to costs and a lack of public confidence in their safety.

The government also announced at this time that it would invest £900 million to improve the safety of existing smart motorways. This could mean converting any stretches of all lane running motorways to a more dynamic model, where the hard shoulder is only opened in times of heavy traffic.

Which are safer, motorways or country roads?

Contrary to what you might expect, in the UK, country roads are statistically more dangerous than motorways. On average three people die each day on country roads, according to THINK! the Department for Transport’s road-safety campaign.

Its figures show that 60% of people killed on Britain’s roads in 2018 were driving on rural roads. That’s 10 times more than the number of people killed on UK motorways in 2017. So there’s perhaps less reason to be nervous about motorways after all.

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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Rory Reid - car and technology expert

Rory Reid is a car and technology expert. He serves as the main presenter on Auto Trader’s YouTube channel and was previously a host on BBC Top Gear and its sister show Extra Gear. He is also a presenter on Fifth Gear. Previously, he hosted Sky TV’s Gadget Geeks, CNET’s Car Tech channel, BBC Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition and on the YouTube channel Fast, Furious & Funny.

Learn more about Rory

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