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  • Franco Pullara

Motorway Driving Tips for New Drivers

Before June 2018, the only time a learner driver could practice on a motorway was to become a full license holder. It seemed like a sensible proposal because the last place you would want to see a learner is on a fast moving motorway.

Busy British Motorway M25

Motorways Safer than Ordinary Roads

Unlike ordinary roads, motorways were designed to help traffic move faster and safer. Statically only 4% of accidents happen on motorways with 5% of all fatalities. Ordinary roads are therefore more dangerous than motorways but the perception is very different. It follows that for many new drivers, the first time driving alone on a motorway is a frightening experience.

Change in the Law

The lack of formal tuition, knowledge and practice on motorways is therefore a big concern for anyone that has to use a motorway. The Government therefore decided to change the law and allow learners to drive on a motorway only with an ADI driving instructor. The learner is therefore able to practice as part of their driving lesson but not allowed to practice privately.

The motorway does not form part of the driving test but allowing a student to experience driving on a motorway alongside their instructor is a huge concession and encouraged. When the learner is ‘test ready’, as an instructor, I recommend at least 2 to 4 hours practice on a motorway especially if the learner knows that he or she will use them.

A Lost Opportunity

The reality unfortunately is as the learner gets toward being ‘test ready’, their priority and focus is on the all consuming driving test. The learner will understandably want to practice on test routes or take mock tests rather than using the time to practice driving on the motorway. So, unfortunately the uptake of motorway lessons is declined or deferred. The first time they go onto a motorway, may well be some time after their test and usually alone. It follows therefore that our newly qualified driver feels anxious, under prepared and unsafe.

Before You Drive

1. Know your rules

There are additional rules to driving on a motorway. You may remember some of these rules from your studies for the theory test. However, it’s always a good idea to refer back to The Highway Code (rules 253 to 273) whenever you feel the need to.

2. Your vehicle

You should maintain your vehicle in good condition all times. This is especially true if you intent on driving on motorways. Fast speeds and longer distances will create greater physical demands on your vehicle. Therefore inspect the tyres for cuts and bulges. Do you have sufficient tread too? Are brakes and steering are working correctly? Make sure you sufficient fuel, oil and water for your journey. Do not drive on to a motorway if you defective lights or signals, you need to be seen on the motorway. And finally, do not ignore warning lights on your instrumentation display. The light is warning you of a potential breakdown and breaking down on a motorway can be problematic and expensive to fix.

3. Your health

If you are feeling unwell, or tired you should not drive on any road. Driving long distances and the monotony of motorways can cause losses of concentration because of fatigue and tiredness. As a driver you need to understand the causes and the remedies should you tire during you journey.


The Skills Requirement to Drive on Motorways

When you are ‘test ready’ you will be offered the opportunity to drive on a motorway. Many of the driving skills you have already learnt are equally applicable for safe motorway driving.

  • Effective observation is required to keep eyes moving between the road ahead and mirrors so that you maintain a constant image of what is around you. Despite the monotony of the motorway keep assessing what’s in the near and far distance because situations can change quickly and suddenly. An example of this when the moving vehicles ahead suddenly slow down due to congestion.

  • Good anticipation of the road ahead and other vehicles prepares you for sudden changes happening around you. For example when you pass an exit, there will usually be a slip road entrance where other vehicles will join the motorway. You should be anticipating the sudden appearance of vehicles moving quickly into your path. Good anticipation will allow you to plan for their sudden appearance.

  • Effective use of mirrors will help in maintaining a clear image of what is around you. Continual use of mirrors will help you track vehicles overtaking you. It’s important therefore to make sure they are clean and suitably adjusted before you start driving. Make sure that your windscreens are also clean and clear.

  • Continual re-assessment of other vehicles around you will help you to deal with a sudden change of lane or change of speed of the vehicles around you.

  • Reading the road ahead will help you anticipate changes of speed and deal with the change safely. For example a steep incline in the road ahead will mean that bigger vehicles such as lorries may suddenly lose speed as they lose power climbing the road ahead.

  • Judgement of speed when joining a motorway from a slip road requires effective observation of the traffic moving on the motorway. Vehicles may be travelling faster than you think.

Motorway slip road and merge lane

You must indicate your intention to join the motorway making sure you can be seen when visibility is an issue and you much match the speed of the traffic on the motorway before you join the motorway. When you have joined the motorway, stay in the left lane until you have had time to judge and adjust to the speed of the vehicles moving on the motorway.

  • Following distances must be maintained. Remember the faster the traffic the more time and space you need to be able to stop or slow down safely. It is advisable that on motorways you give yourself a bigger gap between you and the vehicle in front of you. Remember the two second rule to maintain the appropriate gap or when another vehicle moves into your lane. Don’t forget to double your gap in wet weather and up to ten times in icy or when visibility is greatly reduced in fog. Do not get frustrated when trying to maintain a safe gap when the motorway is busy. Keep maintaining your gap and avoid the practice of ‘tailgating’ which is when you try to stay close to the vehicle in front in order to stop other vehicles from moving from another lane into your gap. This is very dangerous if the traffic stops or slows down quickly and is a frequent cause of serious accidents. Be patient and stay safe.

  • Safe overtaking on a motorway is the same has changing lane on a dual carriage way. Using your MSPSL routine you should check your mirrors to verify the speed and position or traffic behind you. Signal in good time and move out smoothly, avoiding sudden movement when its safe to do so. Make sure you have sufficient speed to avoid blocking any vehicle behind you. Keep looking ahead and checking your mirrors to see if there is anything preventing you from overtaking safely. If you are overtaking a slower vehicle, do not cut in too soon in front of the slower vehicle until you see them appear in your centre mirror. You can now move back to the left lane.

  • Courtesy to other road users is encouraged especially when other vehicles are joining the motorway. It is safer to slow down sufficiently to allow the join vehicles to filter in front of you.


A Guide to Driving on a Motorway

Planning your journey

As stated previously, motorway driving can be monotonous and tiring over long distances. Loss of concentration and fatigue account for almost a fifth of all accidents. Because of the high speeds, an accident on a motorway can result in serious injury. If you are planning a journey on a motorway, you should make sure you are fit to drive. Do not drive if you feel unwell or tired especially at night. You should plan a stop at a service area for 15 minutes after 2 hours of continuous driving. If you start to tire as you drive find the next available service area. Do not stop on the hard shoulder. You can open your window to allow fresh air into the car to help you stay alert before you get to the next available service area.

If you are planning a journey on the motorway, its worth knowing your route before you set off. Even if you are using a sat nav, its worth know what motorway you will use during your route and the exits you will need to take. Planning your route will reassure you that you are heading in the right direction because exits and junctions can look very similar on a motorway.

Motorway signs and signals

Motorway directional signs are always rectangular with blue background and white text and a white border. The sign can be alone or included in a larger directional sign of a different colour. On the motorway the directional sign will be alone. On motorways, you will find the directional signs will provide advance directions, countdown markers and directions to service area. Signs with a brown background and white text and border are tourist attraction signs that you can follow by generally leaving the next exit.

Motorway speed limit signs will be circular with a red ring around the mandatory speed limit. It is an offence and you may be prosecuted if you exceed the speed limit. Black and white rectangular signs show recommended maximum speed limits. They are advisory and are there for your safety.

Motorway signals are warning of dangers ahead such as bad weather, delays or standing traffic. These signals can be from the side of the road, in the central reservation, or on overhead gantries.

When they are flashing amber they may warn you of a hazard ahead such as a lane closure or roadworks or any other hazard or information that you need to be aware off such as temporary speed limits or safety instructions such as slowing down.

Lane closed motorway sign

When the signals are showing a red flashing X signal, you must not go beyond the red X signal. If the flashing red X signal is in the central reservation, you must not go beyond the sign. If you have an over head gantry and the red flashing X signal is directly overhead in your lane, you must not go beyond the signal. You can move to the next available lane if there is no red flashing signal directly overhead of that lane. Always look well ahead for signs and signals and slow down in good time.

Lane discipline

When driving on a motorway you should always stay in the left hand lane unless you are overtaking a slow moving vehicle ahead. Do use your MSPSL to overtake safely and move back to the left lane when it is safe to do so. If we follow this rule of lane discipline, we can accommodate faster moving vehicles with slower moving vehicles and allow traffic to flow more efficiently and safely.

Motorway with multiple lanes

In a two lane motorway, the right lane or sometimes mistakenly referred to as the fast lane, is an overtaking lane. Lorries and vans are permitted to use the right lane if they are overtaking a slower vehicle in the left lane.

In a three or more lane motorways, the middle lane or outer lanes are also overtaking lanes. You can use these lanes to overtake slower moving vehicles just as in a two lane motorway. You can stay in the middle or outer lane for longer if you are overtaking a number of slower moving vehicles. However you should not stay in those lanes longer than you need to or if your are delaying traffic behind you.

When changing lanes follow your MSPSL routine. You need to maintain good observation throughout your driving on the motorway. Keep looking ahead of you and in your mirrors. Keep an image of all the vehicles around you. If you need to overtake slower vehicles, don’t forget that traffic is moving at higher speeds so you need to start your routine earlier. Make sure you indicate your intention in good time so that other vehicles can react to you. Be aware that vehicles behind you can come up quickly.

On some motorways, where there is a long steep incline you will have an additional crawler lane on the left for slower vehicles such as lorries and coaches. The crawler lane is by these vehicles so that they don’t slow down the traffic too much and cause unnecessary congestion.

Motorway interchanges

On busy sections of motorway you will find motorway interchanges which help filter the traffic into designated lanes before busy exits and entrances or where motorways merge. You need to pay attention to overhead directional signs. You may need to change lane depending on you route. You will need to change lanes in good time.

Smart motorways

With congestion on motorways growing, technology has been adopted to help keep busy sections of the motorways running more efficiently allowing more vehicles on the motorway at busy times. This smart technology is referred to as ‘active traffic management’ and it works by varying the mandatory speed limits when traffic volumes get too high and by allowing the use of the hard shoulder as an additional lane. When you are driving on a controlled motorway, you will see the speed limits within a red circle. You may be prosecuted if you exceed the speed limit.

On some busy motorways there is no hard shoulder. This type of motorways is known as an all-lane running motorway. The hard shoulder is permanently used as an extra lane. In case of breakdown, there are every 2,500 metres refuge areas with emergency phone. If a vehicle does break down and is unable to get to a refuge area, the signs will display warning information of the hazard and will slow the traffic down by reducing the speed limit so vehicles can safely go around the broken down vehicle.

Some motorway will have a dynamic hard shoulder. Here the hard shoulder is used as for emergencies only but will become like an all-lane running motorway during busy times. You need to look at the overhead signs to tell you when the hard shoulder can be used. If the hard should is not being used as an all-running lane, the overhead sign may be blank or have a red x light.

What to do if you breakdown

If you maintain your vehicle correctly, vehicle breakdowns are very rare. In the event that you think you may have a problem with your vehicle, you should pull off the motorway at the next exit or motorway service area. If you feel that the problem is getting worse you should pull over in a refuge area is you are on a smart motorway and use the emergency phone to notify the Highway agency of your breakdown. If it is not possible to get off the motorway then get you vehicle of the carriage way be either driving onto the hard shoulder or grass verge if either is available.

Once you have stopped you should switch on the hazard lights and turn off the engine if it is on. You should then exit the vehicle through the passenger door on the left and wait behind the barrier or onto the verge away from the vehicle.

The advice is you are able to get your vehicle off the motorway and your vehicle comes to a halt on the carriage way is to turn on your hazards and stay in your vehicle with your seat belt on. Immediately you should dial 999.

Adverse weather conditions

When there is adverse weather conditions, you should consider whether your journey is necessary as driving on a motorway can be more hazardous. Listen and look out for local weather information if you are unsure.

1. Wet conditions. When driving in wet conditions, you need to be aware that your visibility will reduced because of the spray thrown up by bigger vehicles. You should therefore reduce your speed to a more appropriate speed as this is safer should you need to slow down or stop. You also need to increase the gap between you and the vehicle ahead. You should leave double you normally need in good weather conditions. Don’t forget to turn on your headlights or fog lights if visibility is reduce to less than 100 metres.

2. Ice or Frost.

Warning Ice sign used on motorways

Your vehicle’s handling ability is seriously affected by ice on the road. Keep in mind the outside temperature as ice can form quickly and is difficult to see on the road. If your steering feels lighter than usual, this can be ice on the road. You should slow down and use your car controls smoothly and gentle to avoid skidding on the ice. Furthermore, increase your gap from the vehicle ahead by ten times the normal gap so that you can stop and slow down safely.

3. Crosswinds. Some motorways can be exposed to high crosswinds which will affect your vehicle handling. Your steering will be affected and you may swerve unexpectedly especially when there are sudden gusts of wind. Be aware that high sided vehicle and caravans being towed and motorbikes are prone to swerving in high winds. You should therefore allow for this when overtaking them.

4. Fog. Driving in fog is hazardous because visibility is reduced. You should turn on your dipped headlights. If visibility is reduced to less than 100 metres you should turn on your forward and rear fog lights. You need to reduce your speed to a more appropriate speed that will allow you to slow down or stop safely. Fog has the ability to drift quickly and can be patchy and inconsistent so be prepared to slow down and anticipate and plan for stopped or slowing traffic.

Driving on a motorway at night

Make sure that if you are using a motorway at night that you have your headlights on. You may have started your journey in daylight, so don’t forget to turn on your lights even if the motorway is well lit. You should only use dipped headlights on a motorway because of the danger of dazzling other oncoming vehicles on the other side of the motorway.

motorway at night

Driving at night can also be very tiring and you may find your concentration levels dip after even short spells of driving. Judging your speed can be more difficult too, so you may need to reduce your overall speed.

Motorways also have reflective road studs that will help you define the road layout. Therefore you will see;

  • Red lights are positioned between the hard shoulder and the carriageway

  • White lights are positioned between lanes

  • Amber lights are positioned between the edge of the carriageway and the central carriageway

  • Green lights are positioned between the carriageway and the exist and entrance slip road

  • Fluorescent green/yellow are positioned at a contra flow road works


Roadworks are usually very well signed on the approach. Obey the warnings as you approach by reducing your speed in good time. Get into the appropriate lane for your vehicle and route as indicated on the approach, in good time. Some lanes may merge or filter into another. Be generous and allow vehicles ahead to merge safely.

Once you are in the roadworks, keep to the speed limits indicated by the signs. The speeds limits are there for your safety and the safety of people working at the roadworks. Maintain appropriate gaps between you and the vehicle ahead. Avoid sudden braking and steering movements. Avoid lane changes where signs tell you to stay in your lane. Keep up your concentration as there could be road workers working in close proximity. Do not start to increase your speed until you have left the coned area.

Some roadworks can be mobile if the maintenance is minor. This means that there is no need for major lane closures and a slow moving vehicle with large hazard lights and a large directional arrow at the back of the vehicle will divert the traffic around the mobile roadworks.

Some roadworks will divert you onto the opposite carriage. This is know as a contraflow system. The lanes are often very narrow than normal lanes. Red and white marker posts separate traffic travelling in opposite directions and you will find fluorescent reflective studs marking out the narrower lanes.

Highway Agency traffic officers

The Highway Agency traffic officers work alongside police and are highly trained and highly visible to help keep the motorway safe. Like police officers each traffic officer has photo ID and an unique identification number. hey normally work in pairs and their vehicle is highly visible with warning lights and identification. They have lots of equipment in their vehicle such as temporary traffic signs, first aid, traffic cones and lights to make an area safe in the event of an incident.

Unlike Police officers they don’t have any enforcement powers. Other than responding to incidents on the motorway, they help broken down vehicles, support the police and other emergency services. They manage diversions, clear debris from the carriageway and offer safety advice to motorist. It is an offence not to comply with directions given by a Highway Agency traffic officer.


Staying Safe and Additional Lessons

If you are a new driver, take the time to read this blog and please contact us if we can help in any other way. Please bear in mind, that motorways are safer than normal roads but they are faster so if you feel that you would like motorways lessons, then please let us know. It is better to experience your first drive on a motorway with your instructor rather than on your own. We hope you have a safe journey!


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