Driving on the motorway

Driving on the motorway – a guide for new drivers

1. Is your car ready?

Concerns about breaking down on a motorway can be reduced by doing some quick checks on your car to make sure it’s in tip top condition before setting off.  Checking tyre pressure, tread depth, engine oil, lights, brake fluid, windscreen wipers and engine coolant level take next to no time and will give you that added sense of security.

2. Are you ready?

Driving for prolonged speeds on motorways makes bigger than usual demands on you as well as your car.
If you’re feeling tired or are unwell you should not drive on a motorway and maybe you shouldn’t be driving at all. If you’re unsure, seek medical advice especially if you’re taking medication.

Never drive for more than two hours without a break. Your concentration and alertness will gradually reduce over time without you noticing. More about driving when tired.

If you do feel tired, open a window, turn off the heating in the car, play loud music and/or turn off the motorway at the first opportunity so you can take a break in a safe place. NEVER stop to take a break on the hard shoulder.

3. Keep your distance!

Motorways are the safest roads in the UK but when collisions do happen, the consequences are often serious due to the high speed of the vehicles involved.

The most common cause of collisions on motorways is drivers driving too close to each other so…keep your distance!

You should follow the two second rule – staying AT LEAST two seconds behind the vehicle in front in good weather and at least double that if it’s raining. In icy conditions, it needs to be increased even further.

How to work it out: as the car in front passes a fixed point, such as a sign or a bridge, start to say ‘only a fool breaks the 2-second rule’ at a normal rate.

The phrase takes about 2 seconds to say, so if you pass the same fixed point before you’ve finished saying it, you’re too close and should leave more room.

If you are being tailgated you should:

  • ease your foot off the accelerator
  • move into the inside lane, if it is safe to do so – make sure to apply the two second rule to any vehicle you move behind

4. Use your mirrors

You should be checking what’s going on around you in your mirrors all the time. But remember that mirrors aren’t enough on their own. There are blind spots that can be big enough to prevent you from seeing a car or motorbike approaching from behind. So make sure to take a quick glance over your right shoulder to check that all is clear before you change lanes – it could be a life saver.

5. Breakdowns

If your car develops a fault try to get to the next service area or turn off the motorway. If you can’t you’ll need to stop on the hard shoulder. But be careful – the hard shoulder is a dangerous place.
The only time you can use the hard shoulder is when:

  • When your car has broken down;
  • When there’s an emergency;
  • If the police tell you to;
  • If you’re on a smart motorway and the dynamic hard shoulder is in use.

How to use the hard shoulder

  1. Pull onto the hard shoulder if you can’t make it to a service station – try to stop near an emergency SOS phone if you can;
  2. Park as far to the left as possible, with your wheels turned AWAY from traffic;
  3. Put on your hazard lights to help other drivers see you’re there;
  4. Get out of your car from the LEFT PASSENGER DOOR and stand on the verge, as far away from the traffic as possible;
  5. Use an emergency SOS phone or your own phone to call for help
  6. Stay behind the barrier, as far away from traffic as possible.

…and how NOT to use the hard shoulder

  • Do not stay in the car to wait
  • Do not stand close to the car as you could be hurt if it’s hit
  • Do not use the right hand door to get out of the car
  • Do not let pets out of the car as they could run into the road
  • Do not try to place a warning triangle
  • Do not stand between your car and the breakdown or police vehicle, as one of them could be hit.

Re-join the carriageway carefully. Be patient and wait for a safe gap in the traffic. Always use the hard shoulder to build up speed so you’re entering the carriageway with some momentum rather than slowly. Ideally, you’ll rejoin the carriageway when the traffic volume is low.

6. Slip roads

It’s tempting to slow down or even come to a standstill when attempting to join the motorway from the slip road. However, the purpose of the slip road is to allow you to match your speed to that of the vehicles travelling in the left hand lane. Keep moving, but wait for a suitable gap and then merge safely into the traffic flow. If necessary, adjust your speed before you reach the end of the acceleration lane to avoid braking and coming to a stop.

When it comes to exiting the motorway, you should move into the left-hand lane in plenty of time. Motorway exits are clearly marked usually one and a half miles before the exit. Three signs count down to the exit junction in 100 metre increments. You should start indicating at the 300 metre mark, slowing gently until you exit. Indicate in plenty of time. If you can, try to avoid breaking until you’re on the slip road. When you have left the motorway, remember to keep an eye on your speed to make sure you have slowed down enough.

This is a really good video about driving on motorways. It’s made by a driving instructor who knows what he’s talking about!

7. Overtaking

First ask yourself, is it necessary, is it legal and is it safe to overtake.

If the answer to any of these questions is NO then don’t do it.


You must make full effective use of the mirrors, and check them regularly to update your information.

Before you overtake – check a couple of times to assess speed, course and position of any following traffic. Watch out for traffic changing lanes, the traffic in the right hand lane will be travelling much faster than you. Take a few mirror checks to help assess their speed and the viability of your intended manoeuvre. If the conditions are not favourable – don’t do it.


It’s vital that you use a good long signal to allow other road users around you to see your intentions to overtake. This could influence their decision to make a similar move.


You should be able to move out to the right, smoothly and progressively without any sudden or sharp movements.


You must be able to accelerate enough to overtake without causing difficulties for following traffic. You must also have enough speed limit available to do this, without breaking the speed limit.


Check well ahead to see if there is anything which will cause problems or prevent you from overtaking; like road works, or lane closures, or vehicles travelling much faster from behind you in the overtaking lane. Try to anticipate if the vehicle you want to overtake is about to do something or move in such a way as to prevent you doing it.

Look again

A very quick look into the blind spot might sometimes be necessary before you change lanes for the overtake. Things to remember:

  • Look well ahead
  • Assess well ahead
  • Decide but don’t be hasty
  • Act only when you are safe to do so.

Overtake as quickly and safely as possible and always check in the interior mirror for the car you have just overtaken prior to moving back in front of it. If you can see it in your interior mirror then you can be sure you have indeed passed it with plenty of room. Don’t forget to signal your intention to move back to the left. Keep looking for other vehicles moving into the lane you intend to cross into. Make sure that you cancel the signal.

Overtaking on the left

You must never do this unless there is a traffic queue in the other lane or the queue on your right is moving along much more slowly than in your lane. It’s not safe. A vehicle in the right hand lane might suddenly decide to move to their left and might not see you. The only time you should overtake on the left is when directed to do so by signage or the police.

8. Stick to the left lane

There is no such thing as the fast lane. Drivers should always travel in the left hand lane, (lane one) unless overtaking slower traffic, in which case lanes two and three can be used.  If you are overtaking a number of slower vehicles, it may be safer to remain in the middle lane rather than continually changing lanes. But once you’ve finished overtaking, you should always move smoothly back into lane one.

9. Read up on motorway signals

The Highway Code has a useful source of information on motorways for new drivers.

Motorway signs and signals are used to warn of a danger ahead such as an accident, fog, or road workers on the carriageway. You must understand what they mean and obey them.

Signals situated on the central reservation apply to all lanes, whereas amber flashing lights warn of a hazard ahead, or of a temporary maximum speed limit.

If red lights on the overhead signals flash above your lane and a red ‘X’ is showing, you must not go beyond the signal in that lane. If red lights flash on a signal in the central reservation or at the side of the road, you must not go beyond the signal in any lane.

A white diagonal arrow overhead indicates that you should change lanes in the direction shown.