Motorways are the UK's safest roads, accounting for three per cent of accidents and four per cent of fatalities.

However, due to the high speeds involved, when something does go wrong it can have serious and even life-threatening consequences.

Motorway driving as part of the driving test

Until this year, learner drivers did not receive lessons on motorway driving; the old version of the driving test did not require it. This year, learners in England, Wales and Scotland will be allowed on the motorway, so long as they are accompanied by a qualified instructor in a dual-control car.

This change will mean recently-passed drivers will not have to become accustomed to motorway driving without a qualified professional for support. In the past, newly-qualified drivers would often start using motorways alone.

Newly-passed drivers can find motorway driving daunting, especially in the early weeks and months of motoring. Read on to learn about safe motorway driving.

Entering the motorway

As you move from the slip road towards the motorway itself, use your right indicator to make it clear to other road users that you intend to merge with motorway traffic. Try to match your speed with that of the left-hand lane traffic, then identify a suitable gap before merging.

It's very important that you do not slow down dramatically or come to a halt as you approach the end of the slip road. Such behaviour can be dangerous - not to mention frustrating for other road users.

Exiting the motorway

Be sure you are in the left lane in good time before you depart from the motorway. There are 100-yard markers leading up to every exit; you should switch on your left indicator by the 300-yard marker - if not before. Try not to decelerate while still on the motorway; reduce your speed on the slip road instead. This is safer and will not cause other road users to slow down unnecessarily.

Some slip roads may have two or more lanes. Be sure you are in the correct lane for your intended destination.

Watch your speed as you enter the slip road. If you have been cruising at 70mph for a long period, you may not realise how fast you are going once you reach slower roads off the motorway.

Lane discipline

The left hand lane is for travelling in. The middle and right hand lanes are for overtaking only. You should not stay in the middle or right-hand lanes any longer than necessary. Hogging the middle lane is now an offence and can be extremely unsafe - not to mention annoying for other road users.

In rare cases it may be safer to stay in the middle or right-hand lane. For example, you may need to overtake a number of slow-moving vehicles, in which case it might not make sense to move into the left lane then back out to the middle lane on numerous occasions. Pass the slow-moving vehicles, then move back into the left lane when it is safe to do so.

A re-cap of the three lanes:
  • Lane one (left-hand lane) – travelling

  • Lane two (middle lane) - overtaking

  • Lane three (right-hand lane) - overtaking

Vehicles prohibited from using the right
-hand lane:
  • Speed-limited freight vehicles of 3.5 to5 tonnes

  • Vehicles over 7.5 tonnes

  • Vehicles with trailers

  • Speed-limited vehicles designed for more than eight passengers

Driving on the motorway at night

Some drivers feel night time motorway driving is easier, largely because there is a lot less traffic than during daylight hours. However, the Department for Transport states that while only 15% of driving miles are clocked up at night, nearly a third of road injuries and deaths occur in this period. As such, night time motorway driving deserves special attention.

The coloured studs

The road ahead will be marked out by various coloured, reflective studs. Use these to understand your position on the motorway at all times.

Stud colours and their meaning:
  • Red - Hard shoulder division

  • Amber - Central reservation division

  • White - Mid-lane division

  • Green - Slip road division

Smart motorways

The top - and default - speed on a UK motorway is 70mph. Speed limits - and recommend speeds - may change on some motorways. These figures are displayed on overhead motorway speed signs. Such motorways are sometimes called 'smart motorways'.

There are two types of ‘smart motorway’ sign:
  • Speed shown with a red ring: this is a mandatory speed limit

  • Speed surrounded by flashing amber lights: this is an advisory speed, reflecting weather conditions and/or traffic.

Hard shoulder

The hard shoulder was designed for emergency service access and as a place for broken down vehicles to park up safely out of the flow of traffic. You should not use the hard shoulder unless you have broken down, the motorway's Active traffic Management System permits it (i.e. it is indicated on overhead gantries), or police/Highways Agency personnel tell you to do so.

On some motorways, when traffic volumes are high, traffic may be permitted to use the hard should as a normal lane.

Speeding penalties

Exceeding the stated speed limit could land you with a hefty fine - at least 150% of your weekly salary. Speed cameras are fitted in overhead gantries, so the chances of being caught are high.

Additional motorway driving tips
  • Keep your distance. In normal conditions, leave at least two seconds between you and the vehicle ahead so you have time to stop should the need arise. In wet or icy conditions, this period should be extended. Aiming for a four second gap is sensible.

  • Plan your route. Know the name of the junction you intend to exit through and its location.

  • Ensure your tyres are pumped to the manufacturer's recommended pressure and that your vehicle has sufficient oil and fuel.

  • Beware of left-hand drive lorries from overseas. These lorries have right-hand passenger seat blind spots, meaning they can fail to see other road users in lanes they move into. It's a good idea to stay well behind foreign lorries. This extra distance will also make it easier to overtake such vehicles, because you will be able to see more of the road ahead.

  • If you have recently passed your test and do not feel confident using the motorway, ask an experienced driver to accompany you. You might also consider taking some additional driving lessons to sharpen your motorway driving skills.
  • Taking a Pass Plus course may also prove invaluable in making your motorway driving safer and less stressful.