Motorway driving can be daunting for new drivers. So much so, in fact, that they may choose to avoid them altogether. But unless you’d prefer a longer, more winding way to get from A to B, motorway driving is kind of a necessity.

While it may seem intimidating, the key to driving on motorways is all about knowing what to expect. To help you improve your confidence behind the wheel, we’ll take a look at what you need to know when it comes to motorway driving – including advice for driving on smart motorways, too.

What do the lanes on a motorway mean?

Before we go any further, it’s well worth explaining what each lane on the motorway is for –especially since there’s a myth or two surrounding them. So, let’s get debunking.

For starters, fast lanes don’t exist. And neither do slow lanes for that matter. Most motorways simply consist of three lanes: lanes one, two and three, which are used as follows:

  • Lane one: The left-hand lane for normal driving
  • Lane two: The middle lane used for overtaking
  • Lane three: The right hand-hand lane for overtaking drivers in lane two

Which vehicles can’t use the right-hand lane of a motorway?

There are certain vehicles which can’t use lane three of the motorway. These are:

  • Trucks that are heavier than 7.5 tonnes
  • Speed-limited goods vehicles between 3.5 and 7.5 tonnes
  • Any vehicle towing a trailer
  • Speed-limited vehicles carrying more than eight people

Joining and leaving the motorway

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s start with getting onto the motorway itself.

While it might be tempting to slow down before joining a motorway, doing either of these poses a danger to those around you. Instead, build up speed on the slip road and merge onto the motorway when there’s a safe gap to do so. Be sure to check your blind spot too.

vehicles in traffic jam

As for leaving a motorway, move over to the correct lane with plenty of time to spare. This way, you don’t have to hastily cut across traffic, which could put others in danger.

The exit will be clearly signposted, with countdown markers showing you how far away you are in 100-yard intervals. Indicate and avoid braking ‘til you’re on the slip road. You’ve now exited the motorway.

Overtaking on a motorway

For the most part, you’ll be driving in the left-hand lane of a motorway. But if traffic ahead is slow, you’ll need to overtake in lane two. And if traffic is slow in that lane, then you’ll need to use lane three.

But before you do any of that, there are a few things to keep in mind when overtaking on a motorway. First things first, you should only overtake when it’s safe and legal to do so. Also, you should never overtake on the left – a motorway no-no that’s known as undertaking.

After overtaking, move back into the left lane. “Hogging” the middle lane is illegal and could land you with points on your licence if you’re not careful.

When you’re moving from the right-hand lane towards the left, watch out for other cars that may be moving from the left-hand lane to the middle at the same time.

Motorway stopping distances

How much distance do you need to keep between you and the car in front when on a motorway? To answer this, we can turn to Rule 126 of the Highway Code, which states you should:

  • Drive at a speed that will allow you to stop well within the distance you can see to be clear
  • Leave enough space between you and the vehicle in front so that you can pull up safely should they suddenly slow down or stop
  • Allow at least a two-second gap between you and the vehicle in front
  • Double the gap on wet roads and increase even further in snowy and icy conditions

driving on motorway

Driving on a motorway as a new driver: Top tips and advice

If you’ve only recently passed your test, then motorway driving might make you a little nervous. Ahead of your next journey, calm those nerves with the help of these top tips:

  • Pass Plus can help new drivers improve their confidence on the motorway alongside instructions and guidance from an approved instructor. If you don’t have much experience with motorway driving, then it might be worth seeking out lessons with them.
  • Familiarise yourself with the Motorway section of the Highway Code so that you’re up to speed on the rules, speed limits and layouts of UK motorways.
  • Try planning your journey before you set off, noting down the junction numbers of where you’ll need to join and leave the motorway.
  • Give your car a once over to see if it’s safe to drive – check your oil levels, brakes, tyre pressure and windscreen washer fluid.
  • If you still feel uncomfortable, then you might want a more experienced driver to sit alongside you on your journey so they can offer advice and reassurance on the way.

Driving on smart motorways

Although smart motorways are something of a thorny issue right now, and the rollout of certain types has been paused, there are still plenty of smart motorways that are in effect across the UK. That’s why it’s vital that drivers know how to use them.

To help you out, here’s a brief primer on what smart motorways are, along with the rules you’ll need to be aware of when driving on them.

What are smart motorways?

A smart motorway is a motorway which authorities actively manage to control the flow of traffic, increase capacity and reduce congestion in busy locations.

They do this by allowing cars to drive on the hard shoulder of motorways during the busiest periods of the day, along with monitoring traffic through the use of smart cameras and ‘active’ gantry signs, changing speed limits and closing lanes at a moment’s notice whenever they need to.

driving on motorway

The different types of smart motorways

Controlled motorways: The most used smart motorway; the controlled motorway uses variable speed limits, displayed by signs mounted on overhead gantries, to manage the flow of traffic.

By monitoring actual, real-time traffic flow, the speed is set and then adjusted by algorithms which determine when a lower limit should be introduced. This helps to avoid large amounts of traffic from building up.

british motorway

Hard shoulder running: Hard shoulder running motorways are like controlled motorways, but the main difference between the two is a hard shoulder that opens to traffic in order to create additional capacity. Overhead gantry signs let drivers know whether the hard shoulder is open or closed.

All lane running: On these types of smart motorways, all lanes are open to traffic and there is no hard shoulder. Instead, every 1.5 miles there is an emergency refuge area so that vehicles can pull over and call for assistance should they need it.

Tips for driving on smart motorways


  • Keep to the speed limit displayed by the overhead gantries
  • If you’re experiencing problems with your vehicle, then exit the smart motorway as soon as possible and find a safe place to spot
  • Should you encounter an issue, switch on your hazard lights
  • When stopping in the nearside lane, leave your vehicle via the left-hand door – providing it’s safe to do so – and wait behind the safety barrier if one is available
  • If you’re unable to move over to the nearside lane, or if it’s not possible to get out of your vehicle safely, stay in your car with your seat belt on and dial 999


  • Never drive in a lane closed by a red X. Lanes or hard shoulders marked by a red X denote areas where you cannot drive. Not only is ignoring these areas incredibly dangerous, but you’ll be fined £100 and given three penalty points too.
  • Never drive in a hard shoulder unless you’ve been directed to do so
  • The same speeding laws that apply to regular motorways also apply to smart motorways. Do not be tempted to speed; smart motorways tend to have a greater presence of cameras, so you risk a greater chance of being caught

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