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How to drive safely on the motorway: new driver advice

Motorways are the fastest roads in Britain, but they needn't be intimidating for new or nervous drivers. Here's how to feel confident

How to drive safely on the motorway

Motorways are statistically the safest roads in Britain. They’re also the fastest (traffic permitting), and driving safely at speed over long distances requires attention, common sense, and a degree of skill. Here are some tips to boost your confidence. Once you’ve mastered motorway driving, the country opens up to you.

Entering the motorway

Assuming the traffic is flowing, the cars travelling on the motorway will be doing around 70mph. To merge safely you need to make sure that you’re also moving at a similar speed, so use the slip road to accelerate. Check your mirrors for traffic behind and then, when the white line between lanes is no longer solid, ease into the driving lane when there is a clear gap.

Lane discipline

The left-hand lane of the motorway is the driving lane. It’s not the “lorry lane” or the “slow lane”. It is where you should always drive unless you are overtaking the vehicle ahead. When you do wish to overtake, check your mirrors for a safe gap, accelerate past the vehicle (or vehicles) in front, and then pull back in when there is appropriate space.

Mind your speed

The speed limit for cars on the motorway is 70mph and nobody should drive faster than that. The limit for large goods vehicles and some buses, coaches and vans is 60mph. If you’re towing a trailer it’s also 60mph. Although there’s technically no minimum speed limit, if you are driving slowly enough to cause a disruption you could be fined for driving with undue care or possibly even dangerous driving. It’s best to pick a comfortable cruising speed and stick to it, not to keep speeding up and slowing down as this can confuse other drivers. If your car has cruise control or adaptive cruise control, you can set it to maintain the speed of your choice.

Speed cameras and average speed limits

Speed cameras are commonplace and in the past would only be triggered if you went past them above the speed limit. Now, there are an increasing number of average speed check zones. As the name suggests, the cameras monitor your average speed over several miles, so just slowing down when you see a camera won’t do much good if you’ve been speeding beforehand.

Watch your distance

It’s very important to keep a safe distance from the car ahead to give you time to react. At 70mph, you will cover over 31 metres per second (or over 100 feet). A good way to assess a safe space between you and the car in front is to use the “two-second rule.” Watch as the car ahead passes a fixed point and then count to two. If you have passed the same point before getting to two, then you’re too close and should ease back.

If it’s raining, you should stay even further away from the car ahead to make sure you can see beyond any spray. Use the "four-second rule” to check your distance. Many modern cars have adaptive cruise control features that you can use to maintain a safe distance. These systems use radar, cameras or lidar tech to detect the car in front and to speed up and slow down with the traffic ahead, always aiming to keep to a set distance.

Overtaking

If you come up behind a slower-moving vehicle and want to overtake you need to make sure that the lane to your right is clear. Watch your closing speed on the car ahead as you don’t want to be right behind it and then have to make a large steering input to change lanes. Instead, maintain a steady gap if possible, then when the lane to your right is clear, indicate and gently steer into the lane to your right and accelerate past the vehicle you want to pass. When you’re comfortably ahead move back into the driving lane.

Keep an eye on the time

Motorways can be monotonous. They’re mostly straight, there are no traffic lights, and boredom and tiredness can easily set in. If you’re on a long journey, take a break at least every couple of hours to stretch your legs or grab refreshments, like a coffee. There are over 150 motorway services in the UK, so you're normally within a few minutes' drive of the next one.

The hard shoulder

The hard shoulder is not to be used unless you break down, or the overhead signs on so-called “Smart Motorways” tell you to do so. On smart motorways, the hard shoulder is sometimes opened as a driving lane to make traffic flow more freely. If you do have a breakdown on the motorway then pull onto the hard shoulder and stop – or into the designated refuge area on a smart motorway.

Put your hazard lights on and when it is safe to do so, get everyone out of the car and away from the road while you call for help. If you’re not a member of a recovery service, or don’t have a working mobile phone, you can use one of the roadside phones which are placed at one-mile intervals.

Exiting the motorway

When it comes to exiting the motorway, there’s no excuse for dashing in at the last minute. Signs are placed a full mile before each exit, then again at half a mile and there are countdown markers for the last 300 yards (showing 'III', 'II' and then 'I' as you're counted down in hundreds of feet) before the slip road. That’s plenty of warning to complete any overtaking and get safely back into the left lane.

As you approach the slip road, indicate left to warn drivers behind, but don’t slow down unless you have to due to traffic. Gently ease off the motorway and onto the slip, being ready to slow or even to stop as slip roads often lead to a roundabout from where you can continue your journey on A- and B-roads.

Happy driving!

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