Motorways are statistically our safest roads, with just 3% of accidents and 4% of fatalities. But when something does go wrong, the consequences are usually severe because of the high speeds involved. Our motorway safety guide offers a useful refresher on best practice when it comes to joining and leaving motorways, avoiding the blind spots of foreign articulated trucks and understanding the increasing number of overhead signs and signals.
- Motoring regulations
- Speed and distance
- Joining and leaving the motorway
- Lane discipline
- Motorway signs
- Beware of foreign lorries
- Adverse weather conditions
- Driving safely
Before even considering the correct and safe use of motorways, it is worth reminding ourselves of the rules that govern the motorways. For a start, not everyone is entitled to use these roads. Car and motorcycle learners, motorcycles under 50cc, mopeds and pedal cycles are not allowed on motorways. Some invalid carriages are also excluded, as are animals and pedestrians. Once on the motorway, there is no stopping, (except, in an emergency, on the hard shoulder or verge), no U-turns and no reversing (unless directed by the police).
Speed and distance
The maximum speed limit for cars and motorcycles on motorways is 70mph. For vehicles towing a caravan or trailer, HGVs, articulated goods vehicles, and buses or coaches over 12 metres in length, the limit is 60 mph. Those vehicles restricted to 60mph are also not allowed to use lane three.
Due to the high speeds involved, it is important that motorway users keep a safe distance from the vehicle in front. Stopping distances are substantial at motorway speeds – always adhere to the two second rule. Two seconds is the minimum amount of time there should be between you and the vehicle in front. In wet weather four seconds is our minimum recommended time separation.
Large vehicles can make it difficult to see what’s coming up ahead, so if you get stuck behind a lorry for example, you will need to change lanes or drop back a bit so that you can see what’s going on further up the road.
Joining and leaving the motorway
Many drivers, particularly those who are nervous, slow down, or even come to a halt, on the access slip road when trying to join the motorway. This situation is clearly very dangerous and should be avoided. The idea of the access slip road and acceleration lane is to allow you to match your speed with that of the vehicles already travelling on the main carriageway, and then to move into a suitable gap.
While still on the slip road, you should use your right indicator to draw attention to your vehicle and to your intention to merge with the traffic on the motorway. 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. Never swoop across at the last minute as this could cause a serious accident. Motorway exits are clearly marked by signs that are usually one mile and half a mile before the exit. These signs are followed by countdown markers with bars on them, (each bar represents 100 yards to the exit). You should indicate your intention to leave the motorway at the latest when you’re passing the 300 yard marker) using your left indicator and when it is safe move onto the exit slip road. Try to avoid braking on the main carriageway if you can – do your braking on the slip road. If there is more than one lane on the slip road, ensure that you get into the correct lane for the direction that you want to go. When you have left the motorway, remember to keep an eye on your speed; you may find it tends to be higher than you think, particularly if you have travelled some distance at speed on the motorway.
The incorrect use of motorway lanes not only contributes to congestion and reduced travelling speeds but can also be very dangerous. A source of great irritation for many drivers is the motorist who hogs the middle lane. This is not only an annoying practice but a potentially dangerous one too. Basically, the left-hand lane is for travelling in, the middle and right ones are for overtaking.
Once you have overtaken another vehicle, you should move back in to the left again. However, if you are overtaking a number of slower vehicles, it may be safer to remain in the middle or outer lanes until the move is completed, rather than continually changing lanes. Return to the left-hand lane once you have finished overtaking, or if you are delaying traffic behind you.
As well as the large blue and white motorway directional signs, (showing place names, junctions, route confirmation and miles etc.), you will come across a sometimes confusing plethora of signs and messages while travelling on the motorway.
Most important are the motorway signals and variable signs. These usually advise of abnormal traffic conditions ahead, (e.g. lane closures or fog), and may indicate a speed limit. Where variable speed limit signs, are mounted over individual lanes and the speed limit is shown in a red ring, the limit is mandatory. Speed limits that do not include the red ring are the maximum speeds advised for the prevailing conditions.
Signals and variable signs may apply to individual lanes when mounted overhead or, when located on the central reservation or at the side of the motorway, to the whole carriageway. They are normally blank, but when they indicate a restriction the reason may not always be obvious. There may have been an accident ahead, so take no chances and obey the signals. When red lamps are flashing above your lane, you must go no further in that lane. If you can, move safely to a lane where red signals are not showing.
Traffic information (eg. accident or roadworks ahead) is sometimes displayed on large electronic boards at the side of the motorway. These signs are also used for reminders to drivers such as ‘Don’t drink and drive’, ‘Tiredness kills – take a break’ and, more recently, ‘Don’t run out of fuel’.
There are also tourist information signs, which are brown and point the way to major attractions in the area.
Beware of foreign lorries
Every year in the UK there are more than 1,000 reported incidents of ‘side-swiping’, when left-hand drive foreign lorries, with blind spots on their right-hand passenger side, change lane on motorways and fail to see another vehicle in the lane they are entering. Car drivers need to be aware of this danger with foreign lorries and adjust their driving accordingly.
Never drive too close to a foreign lorry and when planning to overtake drop back to give the driver a better chance of seeing you. This will also give you an opportunity to see what’s ahead – is there a slower vehicle in front of the lorry that it may wish to overtake? Make sure use your indicator, and give yourself plenty of space to get past. Be prepared to accelerate, decelerate or change lanes quickly and safely if the need arises.
Adverse Weather Conditions
It is vital that you adjust your driving to the weather conditions. Slow down in hail, heavy snow and rain as visibility can be greatly reduced, as can stopping distances as roads become slippery. Dazzle from the sun can be dangerous too, especially in winter when it is low in the sky – always have a pair of sunglasses handy in the car.
Fog can be particularly worrying for drivers, and completely disorienting. It tends to drift rapidly and be patchy, so it is vital that you reduce your speed so that you can stop within the distance you can see. Use dipped headlights and front or rear fog lights if visibility is less than 100 metres, but remember to switch them off again when visibility improves. As tempting as it is, don’t hang on to the tail lights of the vehicle in front – this gives you a false sense of security and means you may be driving to close. Try not to speed up suddenly – even if the fog seems to be clearing, you could suddenly find yourself back in thick fog.
The general safety rules which apply to driving on any roads also apply on motorways, but due to the increased speeds involved are even more important to adhere to. Never use a mobile phone, or distract yourself by reading a map or business documents, or eating or drinking while driving. Always pull in to a service station to do so. Never use the hard shoulder for these purposes – it is an offence.
If you are tired, take a break. Driving while tired greatly increases your chances of having a serious accident and puts the lives of others at risk too. On a long journey you should take a break of at least 15 minutes every two hours. You need to be alert and in proper control of your vehicle at all times.