Safe motorway driving: a guide for new young drivers

Written by
Julie Daniels
Motor insurance comparison expert
9 min read
Share article

Passing a driving test is an important milestone in any young person’s life. It provides a newfound sense of freedom as you no longer have to rely on your parents to be part-time taxi drivers.

But with this freedom comes great responsibility. You won’t be able to rely on a driving instructor to point you in the right direction, or to steer you away from a potentially dangerous situation. As you explore new roads on your own for the first time, it’s important to be aware of the rules and best practices to help keep yourself and others safe.

In 2021, more than 60 billion miles of motorway driving were accumulated by vehicles in the UK, with 71,000 vehicles passing an average stretch of motorway every 24 hours. While there are often alternative routes that allow you to avoid motorways, being able to confidently use the country’s extensive network is an invaluable skill for all drivers.

In this guide, we discuss some of the potential dangers you may encounter along the way, helping you to form some good habits that will hopefully stay with you throughout your life. We’ll also discuss how smart motorways are changing the driving experience for motorists in the UK, and draw your attention to the most important rules you need to know about.

What are the rules for new drivers?

In the UK, there are certain rules around motorway driving that new motorists need to be aware of before heading out on the roads. These rules have been updated in recent years, with the latest regulations now permitting learners to use the motorway under certain conditions.

Previously, drivers with a provisional licence weren’t allowed to use the motorway under any circumstances. However, the new rules (enforced in 2018) state that learners are now able to have lessons on these roads provided they are accompanied by a DVSA-approved instructor, and are using a car fitted with dual controls. The instructor must also use their discretion as to whether they deem a learner competent enough to have a lesson on a motorway.

Once you’ve passed your test, there are no laws to stop you from using the motorway freely. At this point, you will be solely responsible for your safety on the roads, and you need to have a strong grasp on the potential dangers involved and how you can best manage them. Breaking laws on UK roads as a new driver can result in some serious penalties and potentially the loss of your licence.

It’s important to remember that whilst the law permits you to head out unaccompanied, you may benefit from taking some trips with a parent or older sibling who has more experience on the roads. It can always be helpful to have an extra pair of eyes on hand, and bringing along a proficient passenger for your initial motorway drives can really help to instil more confidence.

What are the potential dangers involved?

You may be surprised to learn that motorways are actually some of the safest stretches of road in the country. According to recent data, 10 times as many drivers die on rural roads as they do on motorways. Meanwhile, 71% of fatal crashes that involve young drivers (aged 17-24) occur on rural roads.

There are lots of reasons explaining why fewer fatal crashes take place on the motorway, with the fact that they’re designed with safety in mind not being the least important. For example, central reservations make the chances of having a head-on collision highly unlikely, whilst hard shoulders allow stranded drivers to position themselves safely away from moving traffic.

Any time you sit behind the wheel, you’ll need to be vigilant and alert to the potential dangers of the road. But when driving on a motorway, there are unique dangers that you’ll need to know how to handle.

Especially for someone who has recently passed their test, motorway driving can be an intimidating prospect; but this doesn’t mean you should shy away from it. In fact, the more you expose yourself to this type of driving, the more confident you should feel in your ability to manage the roads and your own safety. Here are three potential dangers that can put the safety of motorists at risk.

  • Higher speeds
    The first potential danger, and perhaps the most obvious, is cars will naturally be travelling at higher speeds. There are many dangers closely associated with fast-moving vehicles. Firstly, it will mean drivers have less time to respond to perceived dangers, such as a change in speed by the vehicle in front. With greater braking distances, you will need to react faster than on normal roads to avoid a collision. What’s more, when cars do collide at high speeds, the chance of the crash being fatal drastically increases.
  • Distracted driving
    Distractions can affect drivers on all different types of road, but they can be more prevalent when using motorways. The very nature of motorway driving means you’re often covering vast distances without many speed changes and without having to change gears or think about directions. This can make it easier for drivers to lose focus and become complacent, which puts themselves and others at risk.

    Checking your phone, updating information on a sat nav, looking at the scenery, personal grooming and talking on a handheld device are all common distractions that take drivers’ eyes off the road. Not to mention, drivers are naturally likely to be more drowsy after a long stretch of motorway driving and this in itself can make it more difficult to concentrate.
  • Cars changing lanes
    On any multi-lane road, including motorways, cars will inevitably need to change positions from time to time. Whether they’re overtaking a car or preparing to exit the road, it’s a standard practice that new drivers will need to become familiar with.

    While it is commonplace, switching lanes is one of the most dangerous manoeuvres that takes place on motorways, and even if you aren’t regularly changing lanes yourself, there is still the danger of other cars affecting you when they do. It’s easy for people to misjudge spaces and distances when travelling at fast speeds, which ultimately increases the chance of collisions.

Good motorway driving habits

Once you’re aware of the potential dangers involved with this particular type of driving, it’s important to understand the things you can do to help keep yourself and others safe. Here are five good habits that all drivers should get into when using the motorways.

1. Make sure your car is ready for motorway driving
With so much to think about when using the motorways as a new driver, ensuring your car is properly prepared probably isn’t top of your list of priorities. But before setting off, it’s crucial you take the time to stock your car with any supplies you might need for your journey and in case of emergency.

Drinks and snacks can help to keep your body fueled and focused throughout the journey. You should also have a first aid kit handy which includes any medication you may need, a torch, blanket and jump leads. Whilst these supplies would only need to be used in a worst-case scenario, it’s always best to be prepared in case you do break down and become stranded.

2. Keep a safe distance between you and the car in front
Being aware of stopping distances is one of the most important safety considerations when using the motorways. Driving at faster speeds inevitably means it will take longer to come to a halt, increasing the risk of colliding with another vehicle. This is particularly important in wet or icy conditions, when the stopping distance can increase by as much as ten times.

Typical Stopping Distances:

Speed Thinking Distance Braking distance Total distance
20mph (32km/h) 6 metres 6 metres 12 metres or
three car lengths
30mph (48km/h) 9 metres 14 metres 23 metres or
six car lengths
40mph (64km/h) 12 metres 24 metres 36 metres or
nine car lengths
50mph (80 km/h) 15 metres 38 metres 53 metres or
thirteen car lengths
60mph (96km/h) 18 metres 55 metres 73 metres or
eighteen car lengths
70mph (112 km/h) 21 metres 75 metres 96 metres or
twenty-four car lengths


3. Take regular breaks
As we’ve already mentioned, staying alert whilst behind the wheel is crucial, but this can be more difficult along vast stretches of road like the motorway. As well as ensuring you’re limiting in-car distractions, the best way to retain your focus is by taking regular breaks.

The Highway Code recommends that drivers take a break of at least 15 minutes after no more than two hours on the road. It’s important to allow for this extra time when planning your journey since you’re more likely to skip a break when in a rush.

4. Understand and follow motorway signs and signals
Having already passed your theory and practical driving tests, you should have a solid understanding of the different road signs and their meanings. However, there are some motorway-specific signs that you may have never seen before, so take the time to familiarise yourself with these before taking to the open roads.

On a motorway, you will see signs hanging overhead and to the side of the road. They typically are used for directional purposes, but they can also inform you which lane you need to be in as well as general safety warnings and advice.

5. Avoid changing lanes unnecessarily
Whenever a car changes lanes, the driver is drastically increasing the chances of an accident occurring. This manoeuvre always has risks attached to it, and the dangers are amplified when performed on a particularly busy road. Not only is there the possibility of colliding with a vehicle that’s in your blind spot, but it’s also easy to misjudge the space between cars. There are only a handful of situations where it’s necessary for you to change lanes. These include when you’re overtaking a slower-moving vehicle, exiting/entering a slip road or in the wrong lane.

When you do need to change lanes, it’s important to follow the correct protocols. Here are some top tips to bear in mind:

  • Give yourself plenty of time – look out for signs and directions in advance so you don’t have to make any sudden movements.
  • Always check your mirrors to ensure it’s safe to move across. This should include checking both your side and rear-view mirror.
  • Look over your shoulder to double check there aren’t any vehicles in your blind spot.
  • Use your indicators. Remember that when your indicators are on, this doesn’t mean other drivers are obliged to give you right of way. If it’s not safe to move, switch your indicators off and start the manoeuvring process again.

Smart motorways – what you need to know

Smart motorways are slowly being introduced to the UK’s road network. The main aim of these roads is to ensure a smoother flow of traffic, helping to increase capacity whilst reducing congestion – especially during the busiest times of the day. This is achieved through the use of different traffic management systems, including allowing use of the hard shoulder and automatically adjusting the speed limit depending on conditions.

With the technology still being developed, currently only around 10% of the country’s motorway network uses smart motorway systems, but this is set to increase as more information and data on their effectiveness is obtained.

A key feature of smart motorways is variable speed limits, with sensors able to monitor traffic volume and flow. When the sensors detect the roads are busy, speed limit signs will automatically be adjusted to help prevent a queue forming. Failing to adhere to a change in the speed limit will leave you at risk of incurring a financial penalty and receiving points on your licence. If drivers need to be made aware of any information such as a queue up ahead, digital signs can display this to drivers further back.

Drivers using smart motorways must also be aware of when a red cross appears on the overhead digital displays above each lane. This symbol informs drivers that a lane is closed and should not be used under any circumstances. Not only is it potentially dangerous to ignore these signs, but it’s also against the law.

While it’s clear that these roads can offer plenty of benefits to motorists by improving traffic flow, the technology has received some criticism, with potential safety risks being brought to light. The primary issue concerns the opportunity to remove the hard shoulder, which can leave stranded vehicles vulnerable to collisions.

If you do break down on a motorway with no designated hard shoulder, pull over to the left lane and put your hazard lights on to inform other drivers. If you are able to, exit the motorway at the next junction or services and call for help from there, or if possible, find the nearest emergency refuge area.

Manage the motorways

In this guide, we’ve touched on the most prevalent dangers associated with motorway driving and highlighted some of the habits all good drivers should have in order to deal with them. While you can’t expect to master motorway driving at the first time of asking, keeping these tips and best practices in mind will give you a headstart as you take the first steps on your driving journey.