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A guide to motorway driving

Motorways are one of the safest types of roads to drive on in the UK, with research from the Department for Transport (DfT) showing that they carry 21% of all traffic but only account for 5.4% of fatalities and 4.7% of injured casualties. Yet, due to the high speeds involved in motorway driving, when accidents do occur they tend to often be serious.

Driving on these super fast roads can be daunting regardless of how many years' experience you've got under your belt. Motorways come with their own unique set of rules and characteristics, requiring you to act and react in different ways. So, whether you've just passed your test or your memory simply needs refreshing, read our simple guide to motorway driving.

Who can drive on a motorway?

Some modes of transport aren't permitted on motorways, including motorbikes under 50cc, mopeds and pedal bikes. Learner drivers or learner motorcyclists aren't allowed on these roads either, but they're able to use them as soon as they've passed their test without having to undergo further training.

If you've just ditched your L plates, you should consider getting some motorway driving experience with a qualified instructor before going solo. Devised by the Driving Standards Agency (DSA), the Pass Plus scheme will teach you essential skills for driving safely and confidently on motorways.

In late 2015 the DfT unveiled it'll be allocating £2m for research into the possibility of giving learner drivers motorway experience with an instructor before they take their test. However, until the results from the research are published, motorways remain a no-go for provisional licence holders.

Speed limits and distance

Cars and motorcycles are allowed to drive up to 70mph on the motorway. Some vehicles are limited to 60mph, such as cars towing caravans or trailers, HGVs, and buses or coaches more than 12 metres long. By law, vehicles limited to 60mph are not allowed to use the outside lane (lane three).

When driving on a motorway, you should leave a gap of at least two seconds between you and the car in front. Your stopping time will increase in wet weather, so aim for a gap of at least four seconds.

Lane usage

Incorrect lane usage gets other drivers riled and can lead to unnecessary congestion. The rule's to always keep to the left, only moving right when you're travelling faster than vehicles in front and there's plenty of space to move across. You should return to the left lane once you've finished overtaking the slower cars.

Joining and exiting the motorway

Joining the motorway safely means accelerating in the slip road to match the speed of the other drivers. Use your right indicator to show you want to move into lane one, wait for an appropriate gap in the traffic, and then move across. Most drivers will shift to lane two to allow you to enter; if they don't, you might need to adjust your speed to avoid coming to a halt at the end of the slip road.

Signs are displayed one and half miles before each exit, giving you plenty of time to move into the left lane. Leaving it to the last minute and swooping across can be extremely dangerous, so avoid doing this at all costs.

Using the hard shoulder

The hard shoulder's for emergency situations only – it's an offence to use them for other purposes, such as making a phone call or checking a map.

If you break down on the motorway, pull into the hard shoulder when the route is clear, stopping as far left as possible and turning your wheels to the left. When the car's stationary, switch on your hazard lights and exit the car from the left side. Make sure all passengers exit from the left side and move them as far away from the traffic as possible, ideally a few metres back from the crash barrier. Use your phone to call for assistance or walk to the nearest emergency telephone, which will be highlighted by roadside markers.

Staying alert while driving on a motorway

Travelling at high speed on the motorway requires full concentration, but long, quiet stretches make it hard to stay alert at times. Monotonous driving can also lead to driver fatigue, which the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) says may be a contributory factor in up to 20% of all road accidents. To help stay alert, you should:

  • Take regular breaks: Stop and rest whenever your attention flags or you start to feel drowsy. The Highway Code recommends a rest of at least 15 minutes for every two hours on the road.
  • Utilise service stations: If you're feeling tired you should drive to the nearest service station where you can rest, go for a walk, or grab a coffee. Drinking at least 150mg of caffeine and then sleeping for at least 15 minutes are considered the only effective methods to avoid sleepiness in the Highway Code.
  • Avoid night driving: Due to our sleeping patterns, we tend to feel most drowsy during the hours of 12am-6am, so avoid being on the motorway at these times. It's far better to postpone your journey to the morning.
  • Don't drink and drive: Having a bottle of beer might not always push you over the legal limit but it can still significantly impact your concentration levels and reaction times, so stick to the soft drinks before motorway trips.
  • Turn it down: In cold weather, avoid turning up the heating to max in your car as this can make you feel drowsy.

All information is correct at time of publication. Hastings Direct cannot be held responsible for any misinformation displayed.

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