How to drive on a motorway

Meatloaf hit the road like a battering ram on a silver-black phantom bike. What he didn’t include in the song Bat out of Hell was that he got lost, ran out of fuel and the Highways Agency had to rescue him.

He’s not alone; many drivers don’t plan properly for their journeys, and it can lead to hassle galore. It’s just that most drivers don’t write a song about the experience. When your route includes a spell on an unfamiliar motorway, it’s important that you plan your journey. You can’t turn around if you miss a junction, and the next one could be 10 miles away. 

Drivers frequently sit in the middle lane for miles on end, creating problems for faster moving traffic and leading to dangerous undertaking

Then you’ve got to return the same distance just to get back to where you went wrong, which is sooo annoying! Still spare a thought for William Allen, who spent two days circling the M25, trying to find the right exit…

The Highways Agency’s Stuart Thompson explains: “Good planning can make the difference between a comfortable journey and a spoilt getaway, but making sure your vehicle is in good order is also vital as motorways are not places you want to break down. You’re at your most vulnerable when you’re on the hard shoulder, so keep your car well maintained to avoid breaking down in the first place.”

Getting on

When attempting to join a motorway, you mustgive way to those already on it. Build up your speed on the slip road to match that of the vehicles already in the inside lane; signal early and look for a gap. Never rely on your mirrors when joining a carriageway; checking over your shoulder is essential to make sure nothing is in your blindspot.

When it’s safe to do so, move smoothly into a gap. Quite often you’ll find that sliproads of motorways have two lanes. The inner one is for slower traffic and joins further down the carriageway, whereas the outer lane of the sliproad joins sooner, so you’ll have less time to find a gap.

After you’ve joined safely, you need to have your wits about you. Treat lorries with caution as it’s often difficult for a truck driver to see your car when you pull alongside. Be extra vigilant when overtaking foreign lorries, as the drivers sit on the opposite side of the cab and may be oblivious of your presence.

Bear in mind that many larger vehicles such as lorries and coaches will be moving significantly slower than passenger cars. The law requires such vehicles to have speed limiters – 56mph for most trucks and 62mph for coaches.

As you cruise towards your destination, remember that poor lane discipline frustrates other motorists. The left-hand lane should be used whenever possible, unless you’re overtaking another vehicle. Nervous, lazy of inconsiderate drivers frequently sit in the middle lane for miles on end, creating problems for faster moving traffic and leading to dangerous undertaking.

Also remember that good anticipation is key to safe motorway driving. You can help those joining at a junction by moving into the middle lane early, if it’s safe to do so.

Likewise, if you’re in the middle lane approaching a truck, but suspect a car in front of you may wish to overtake as well, move into the outside lane if you can. Always indicate and check your mirrors and your blindspot before any change lanes.

With some practice and thought about what you’re doing, you can develop superhuman abilities and start seeing things before they’ve even started to develop. Erm, okay that’s an exaggeration, but you will become a better driver, make smoother progress and help other motorists.

Take particular care when travelling through roadworks. Miles of cones are infuriating, but you must stick to the speed limits, not just to avoid a fine and points, but to protect the workforce who might be in the road.

The flashing red ‘x’ displayed on motorway gantries is the most important sign to observe. It means ‘lane closed’ and you should never travel under it as an obstruction lies ahead.

Don’t be a fool

Keeping an appropriate stopping distance is critical. Stuart Thompson explains: “Being too close to the vehicle in front is a major factor in approximately a third of all collisions on our roads.

“Many dangerous incidents on the motorways could be avoided if drivers simply kept at least two seconds away from the car in front. Tailgaters put their own lives at risk by driving too close, and the lives of other road users as well. The advice of the Highways Agency is simple... don’t be a fool, follow the two-second rule.”

The two-second rule is for normal road conditions; you’ll need to increase your stopping distance to take account of a slippery surface in cold or wet weather. Use your headlights if there’s heavy rain, and your rear foglights if visibility decreases significantly. But don’t leave your foglights on for the next fortnight though, and remember that their use can mask your brake lights.

So what if you want to get off? First, make sure you give yourself plenty of time. Burning up the outside lane and deciding at the last minute that you need to exit when you’re already upon the junction is crazy and shows poor awareness.

Junction exits have a 1-mile warning, a 1/2-mile warning and then three markers, signifying 300, 200 and finally 100 yards to the exit.

Don’t risk an accident by trying to force your way through to a junction that caught you off guard; carry on until the next one and turn back on yourself, it’s a lot safer. Fortunately all junctions are numbered, which makes things easier.

Use your indicators and, once you’re off the motorway, pay attention to your speed. After a long period of motorway driving, 70mph feels like 30mph, which isn’t helpful when you need to negotiate the roundabout at the end of the sliproad…

* Also check out our page on what to do if you break down on the motorway.