UK Motorway Laws
In this guide, we assess the laws governing motorway use and discuss the best practices of using them safely, including:
- Joining the motorway
- Leaving the motorway
- Driving on the motorway
- Who is or isn't allowed to join the motorway
What is the speed limit on a motorway?
At present, the speed limit for most vehicles on motorways is 70 mph (112 kph). Recent Government statistics from 2019 found half of cars and vans exceed the speed limit on motorways and one in ten speed by more than 10 mph.
The following vehicles are restricted to driving at no more than 60 mph:
• Good vehicles that weigh over 7.5 tonnes
• Articulated goods vehicles
• Cars towing trailers or caravans
• Goods vehicles towing a trailer
What speed am I allowed to do on smart motorways?
It is estimated that there are 500 miles of smart motorways in England, with a further 300 miles to be developed within the next four to five years. Smart motorways are designed to ease motorway congestion by allowing cars to be occasionally driven on the hard shoulder, particularly during the busiest periods of the day.
Smart motorways are sections of motorway in Great Britain that use active traffic management to increase capacity, resulting in smoother traffic flow, more reliable journey times, fewer road traffic collisions and reduced noise and air pollution. During the busiest periods of the day, traffic may be allowed to travel on the hard shoulder to ease traffic congestion.
Traffic is monitored using cameras and sensors and controlled via active signs that can show varying speed limits and indicate lane closures at any given time. Unlike other roads, if you break the law when driving on a smart motorway, it’s less likely to go unnoticed.
Suppose you break the variable speed limit set by a regional traffic centre, which is displayed on the gantry above the specific lanes. In that case, you could face yourself paying a fine of up to £2,500 (based on your income) and land six penalty points on your licence.
If you are caught driving over 90 mph on a smart motorway you could be disqualified from driving altogether.
If there aren’t any speed limits shown on the gantry above the lanes, it means the national speed limit is in place for that section of the motorway.
What are the rules of smart motorways?
A recent survey by road safety campaign group Brake and the breakdown recovery firm Green Flag questioned over 2,000 UK motorists and found that only 48% of drivers know how to use smart motorways and 25% admitted to not knowing what a smart motorway is.
There are several important rules, which some drivers claim not to know:
• Keep to the speed limits shown on the signs – and be careful because one might show 50 mph and the very next one you approach could show 40 mph
• A broken white line indicates a normal running lane
• If the hard shoulder is being used as an extra lane, use the designated emergency areas for emergencies
• If you break down, put your hazard lights on
• Don’t drive in a lane closed with a red X – you could face a £100 fine as well as receiving three penalty points on your licence
• The reason for lane closures vary, but typically they allow emergency vehicles to get to an accident quicker. Or, there could be debris on the road following a collision – so choosing to drive in these lanes can cost you more than just a fine and three penalty points
• You can identify a hard shoulder by looking for a solid what ‘unbroken’ line – if there’s no speed limit displayed on the gantry above, or there’s a red X displayed don’t use the lane
Types of vehicle allowed on UK motorways
The following types of vehicles are allowed to travel on UK motorways:
• Motorcycles over 125cc
• Towed vehicles (cars towing caravans)
Types of vehicles not allowed to drive on UK motorways
Most of the following vehicles aren’t allowed to travel on UK motorways due to not being able to reliably meet the minimum speed requirements:
• Agricultural vehicles like tractors
• Motorcycles under 125cc
• Vehicles with extra-wide loads which could take up more than one lane (although rare exceptions can be made with authorities)
• Mobility scooters
How to join the motorway
It’s tempting for some drivers who are nervous about motorway driving, to slow down when joining a motorway from a slip road. However, the purpose of the slip road is to allow the driver to get their vehicle up to the same speed as the vehicles in the left-hand land of the motorway.
While on the slip road, you find a suitable gap to be able to join the traffic in the left-hand lane. If you need to, alter your speed before you reach the end of the acceleration lane to prevent braking and coming to a stop.
How to exit the motorway
Motorway exits are marked one and a half miles before each junction. There are also three signs which count down to the exit junction in 100-metre increments. When you need to exit the motorway you should:
• Move into the left-hand lane in sufficient time
• Start indicating at the 300-metre mark
• Start slowing down in preparation to exit the motorway
• Keep an eye on your speed on the exit slip road to make sure you’ve slowed down enough
What is each motorway lane for?
This is the routine lane drivers should be in when not overtaking other vehicles.
It can be tempting for some drivers to stay in this lane if they are nervous about changing lanes. However, this is dangerous, as well as frustrating to other motorists.
As of 2013, new laws were introduced to allow police officers to dish out £100 on-the-spot fines as well as three penalty points to drivers who hog the middle lane. This lane should be used to overtake slow-moving traffic in the left lane – once you’ve finished overtaking you should move back into the left-hand lane.
Should only be used to overtake vehicles moving slowly in both the left-hand and middle lanes.
Is undertaking illegal?
Strictly speaking, undertaking on a motorway isn’t illegal. Although, if caught by the police, they will view it as reckless or aggressive driving, unless it was for either of the following two reasons:
Avoiding a collision
If the car ahead hits the brakes hard and the left lane is the only free lane, undertaking might be your only option – just make sure it’s safe to move into that lane before doing so.
For example, if you’re in the right-hand lane and the car in front slams its brakes on, you can undertake and move into the middle lane, but before doing so, make sure no vehicle from the left-hand lane is about to move into the middle lane.
Congestion in the right-hand lane
If the far lane is extremely congested, you may undertake, providing you stay below the speed limit.
Can learner drivers use the motorway?
Since June 2018, learner drivers can now drive on UK motorways, providing they are accompanied by a qualified instructor who has dual control of the vehicle.
When can I use the hard shoulder?
You might be thinking to yourself that it’s ok to stop in the hard shoulder to check something like ‘Did I remember to pack my laptop in my boot’. Please allow us to introduce Highway Code 264, which stipulates:
You MUST NOT drive on the hard shoulder except in an emergency or if directed to do so by the police or traffic officers in uniform or by signs.
So this means no stopping to take a call on your mobile or to eat your lunch.
However, as mentioned further above, if you’re driving on a smart motorway, you might be permitted at certain peak times of the day, such as rush hour, that the hard shoulder is available to use as an extra running lane.
Please check the gantry signs above to make sure it’s ok to move into the hard shoulder.
The only other reasons for using the hard shoulder include:
· A serious medical emergency
· If the police tell you to do so
· If your vehicle is immobilised due to a crash or mechanical failure
If you’re caught stopping on the hard shoulder without any of the above reasons, you could land a £100 fine and three points on your licence.
Furthermore, if you have caused an accident due to using the hard shoulder for anything other than the above reasons, you could be charged with careless driving, which carries a £5,000 fine and up to nine penalty points.
Recent figures show that over 100 people are seriously injured or killed on the hard shoulder every year.
What if I breakdown on the motorway?
If the worst happens and your vehicle develops a problem, and it’s not possible to exit the motorway, pull over to the hard shoulder – making sure you first get the vehicle as far over to the left as possible.
Once you have done that it’s important to:
• Put your hazard lights on, to indicate to other drivers that you’ve broken down
• Put your sidelights on in poor visibility or at night-time
• Don’t open the driver’s side doors
• Warn your fellow passengers about the dangers of passing traffic
• All people inside the vehicle should leave the vehicle from the nearside doors (the side which isn’t facing the traffic).
• Ensure all passengers, including the driver, should wait near the vehicle but as close to the embankment as possible
• Telephone emergency services – preferably using a roadside emergency telephone (which will pinpoint your position), or alternatively, use your mobile phone. If you’re a vulnerable driver, such as a disabled or older person, or you’re travelling alone or with young children, tell the operator
Please do not:
• Try to place any warning device on the carriageway or hard shoulder
• Attempt any repairs, no matter how simple on the motorway – let the recovery services fix the problem with your vehicle
Understanding the laws and rules of the motorway will hopefully lead to reducing the risk of you being involved in a motorway collision and driving as safely as possible.