In terms of road traffic collisions per mile, motorways are safer than any other type of road. In 2014 there were 88 'injury collisions per billion miles' compared with 819 on urban roads.1
But when collisions happen on motorways they tend to be serious due to the high speeds of the vehicles involved.
So all drivers - but especially new drivers - need to be aware of the risks and actively manage them. This article will help you stay safe on Britain's motorway network.
It's really important to avoid mechanical problems - or running out of fuel - on motorways.
If your car breaks down you'll be forced to stop on the hard shoulder or - if you're driving on a so-called 'smart' motorway - in a live traffic lane.
These are places you do not want to be. More than 100 people are killed or injured at the side of the motorway every year.2
So it's very important to carry out these simple vehicle checks before every motorway journey. Your life could depend on it.
- Tyre pressures, (including the spare, if you have one);
- Tread depth, (the legal minimum is 1.6mm but don't let the tread depth get below 3mm in the summer or 4mm in the winter);
- Engine oil,
- Brake fluid,
- Windscreen wipers, (make sure they're in good condition);
- Engine coolant level;
- Fuel, (make sure you've got enough to reach your destination).
Make sure you take a fully charged mobile phone with you in case of a breakdown or other emergency.
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.
Keep your distance!
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:
- if necessary, increase the distance between you and the vehicle in front. It should be at least three seconds in the dry, six seconds if it's raining. Don't brake suddenly to do this, just 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.
Use your mirrors!
It's important to always know what's going on behind and around you. You may have to make a move into another lane at short notice if the driver in front of you suddenly slows or moves out of their lane.
So you should be using your mirrors regularly, not just before you want to change lanes,
But remember that what you see in your mirrors may not be the whole story.
There are blind spots that can be big enough to prevent you from seeing a car or motorbike approaching from behind.
So you may need to take a quick glance over your right shoulder (or left shoulder if you're moving to the left) to check that all is clear before you change lanes - it could be a life saver.
What to do if you breakdown on a motorway
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.
Remember, you're only allowed to stop on the hard shoulder, (or the emergency refuge areas on a smart motorway), in an emergency.
Emergencies include when your car suffers a mechanical breakdown, if you get a puncture or if you have a medical emergency.
You can't stop on the hard shoulder if you want to make or receive a phone call, if you're tired or need to go to the toilet - that's what service stations are for and you should plan your rest stops around them.3
Do not try to change a wheel on the hard shoulder (call for assistance) and do not use a warning triangle - walking down the hard shoulder to place the triangle behind your car is too dangerous.
How to use the hard shoulder
- Try to stop near an emergency SOS phone if you can;
- Park as far to the left as possible, with your wheels turned AWAY from traffic;
- Put your hazard lights on;
- Get out of your car from the LEFT PASSENGER DOOR and stand behind a safety barrier if possible or as far away from the traffic as you can;
- Preferably, use an emergency SOS phone to call for assistance (the operator will know exactly where you are) or your mobile phone;
- 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 stand between your car and another 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 at the same speed as the vehicles in lane 1.
How to join and leave a motorway
When joining a motorway from a slip road, you should match your speed to that of the vehicles travelling in the left hand lane.
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 one mile and half a mile before the exit. You will also see three signs that count down to the exit junction in 100 metre increments. You should start indicating at the 200 metre mark. Indicate in plenty of time. If you can, try to avoid braking 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.
Overtaking on a motorway
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 behind you again to assess other vehicles' speed, course and position.
Watch out for traffic changing lanes behind you - they will be coming towards you quickly and may move back into your lane without signalling.
If you don't feel it's safe – stay where you are.
Check well ahead to see if there is anything which will cause problems or prevent you from overtaking - like road works, or lane closures.
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.
Once you've decided that it's safe to overtake, signal before you move. After you signal, check again to make sure it's still safe.
Move out smoothly and progressively without any sudden movements.
You must be able to accelerate enough to overtake without causing difficulties for following traffic but you mustn't break the speed limit.
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 passed it and it's ok to move back in.
Don’t forget to signal your intention to move back to the left BEFORE you move.
Overtaking on the left
You must never do this unless:
- there is a traffic queue in the other lane;
- the queue on your right is moving along much more slowly than in your lane or
- when directed to do so by signage or the police.
Why? Because it’s not safe. A vehicle in the right hand lane might suddenly decide to move to their left and might not see you.
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.
Know your signs!
You need to know what the signs mean on motorways.
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.
Read the Highway Code (free download)
1. TRL, Understanding the Strengths and Weaknesses of Britain's Road Safety Performance, 2016
3. Auto Express, How to Use the Hard Shoulder, 14th May 2020.