Motorway Safety

Blog post posted on 11/07/22 |

In this the second of IAM RoadSmart’s series of expert driving tips, Head of Driving & Riding Standards Richard Gladman, takes a closer look at safe motorway driving.

Motorway driving is actually a unique skill, so much so that the Driver & Vehicle Standards Agency (DVSA) has recognised this and changed the rules to allow a qualified driving instructor to teach this to a learner driver before they pass their test.

Speed is a given on a motorway. If you find other traffic going faster than the legal limit of 70 mph, just get out of their way. If you find someone coming up very fast behind you, create space in front of you, so that if someone does something in an emergency, you’ve got plenty of braking distance for both yourself and the person behind you. Of course, as soon as you can, get out of their way.

Because traffic tends to be moving quickly, anticipation is key. For instance, if you’re driving down the outside lane and approaching a car on the inside, which is coming up behind an HGV, you should know that it’s likely the car will pull out. The legal limit for an HGV on a motorway is 60 mph, but actually they have a physical limit of 56, so the car is almost certainly going to overtake it.

Likewise, drivers approaching an HGV at say 70 mph tend to look in their mirror – see a car in the distance behind them and assume they’ve got plenty of time to pull out to overtake. However, in that time they might have already slowed from 70 mph to around 60 mph, not leaving as much time as they originally thought.  This is particularly true of people driving cars with radar cruise control, which will literally fit your speed with the traffic in front of you – before you know it, you’re doing 50 and you’ve then got to make a conscious effort to overtake.

Plus, of course, even the best technology is no replacement for good, old-fashioned concentration.

Relax and stay in lane

When a motorway is busy, you often see people weaving in and out of every lane; then you get to a stretch where the traffic is at a crawl, or a standstill, and that same car is actually almost adjacent to you.

There’s a five-lane section of the M25 and what tends to happen is that everyone is trying to go faster in lanes four and five, while one and two are relatively empty.

The best thing to do is stick to around 50 mph if you can, turn up the radio and relax; if the traffic is moving slowly, accept it. You will all still get to where you are going at broadly the same time. And contrary to popular belief, it’s ok to overtake traffic on your offside in congested conditions on the motorway, to keep up with the traffic in front – as detailed in Rule 268 of the Highway Code.

Think ahead

Queuing traffic is of course an everyday hazard on the UK’s motorways. Ideally, you don’t want to stop, but that means you have to plan a long way ahead. If you see brake lights cascading then that’s the time to begin slowing, checking in your mirrors, and coming off your accelerator, while monitoring the traffic behind you too.

If you really do have to stop, you need to be very aware of the traffic behind you, because you need to control it a long way before you come to a standstill. Use your hazard warning lights – that’s one of the exemptions in the Highway Code for using them when moving - to get the traffic behind you to match your speed: Ideally, it will feel obliged to roll to a stop before you.

Sometimes, while I don’t really need to brake, I just touch the brakes to signal to the cars behind that they need to slow down, and to ensure they are aware of what’s ahead.

Motorways and motorbikes

People often ask me how best to cope when motorbikes are coming up on either side of them in heavy traffic. If I see a bike coming up alongside of me and I don’t have time to confirm 100% that there isn’t another bike coming up on the other side of me, I don’t change position.

Of course, filtering on both sides of the traffic is legal for bikes but overtaking dangerously is not. So when traffic is flowing at 50 or 60 mph and motorbikes are coming through at 70 mph, is that legal? That’s debatable. However, filtering generally happens in slow moving or stationary traffic.

At the same time, one of motorcyclist’s biggest complaints is about drivers who pull onto the white lines between lanes to try to see what’s going on ahead, and just sit there. Drivers need to be aware that motorcyclists are likely to be coming through and leave a free passage for them.

Smart motorways

I’m not a fan. But, if you’re going to break down on a live carriageway then you’re better off on a smart motorway that will have the static vehicle detection systems and CCTV.

However, I’m an ex-traffic policeman who policed the M25: I hate smart motorways because they’ve taken away the one facility that we had to get people off the live carriageway. The perfect motorway would  be one with the smart motorway detection technology, and a hard shoulder.

When necessary, unless you have an immediate, catastrophic failure, get off the motorway as soon as you can...even on a smart motorway the slip roads have a hard shoulder.

Get out of the car, and over the barrier – check you’re not on a bridge: I’ve dealt with people that in the stress of breaking down have remembered they need to get over the barrier, but not thought about what’s on the other side and have literally fallen off a motorway bridge!

Once safely over the barrier, go up the embankment and walk towards the oncoming traffic so your car is slightly beyond you. There are a couple of reasons for this; if your car is hit, the flying debris will not hit you, the other is that anyone coming to help you, will see you and be able to pull up beside your car.

Is your car fit to drive?

Finally, before you even think about driving on a motorway, make sure you’ve got plenty of fuel in your tank, or it’s well charged – running out of fuel is one of the most common reasons people break down, and your car is fit to drive. Your tyres should be in good condition - neither overinflated, or under, with no cuts or bulges.

For more expert advice from Richard, look out for the next in IAM Roadsmart’s series of driving safety tips.