For the most part, the UK’s qualified drivers know a great deal about the laws of driving on A-roads thanks to extensive driving lessons and road experience.
But there’s one area of road law that, for many, remains a mystery: motorways.
In this guide, we explain some of the key rules you should always follow when driving on the motorway in the UK, including speed limits, smart motorways, and using the middle lane.
Who can use the motorway?
Types of vehicles permitted on motorways
There are several types of vehicles that can be used on British motorways. These include:
- Towed vehicles (e.g. cars towing caravans)
- Motorcycles over 125cc
Road users NOT permitted to use the motorway
The majority of road users banned from using the motorway are those who can’t reliably meet the minimum speed requirements, including:
- Motorcycles under 125cc
- Agricultural vehicles like tractors
- Vehicles with extra-wide loads that take up multiple lanes (with rare exceptions agreed with the authorities on a case-by-case basis)
- Mobility scooters
- Horse riders
Can learner drivers use the motorway?
Yes, learner drivers can use the motorway — as long as they’re accompanied by a qualified instructor who has dual control of the car.
It used to be the case that learner drivers were only allowed on motorways once they’d fully passed their driving test. However, in a bid to improve drivers’ confidence on fast, busy roads, learners have been able to drive on motorways as part of their driving lessons since June 2018.
Motorway speed limits
What is the speed limit on a motorway?
The speed limit for cars on UK motorways is 70 mph. Buses, heavy goods vehicles and vehicles that are towing caravans or trailers can only go up to 60 mph.
What is the variable speed limit on a motorway?
On smart motorways, the speed limit can change if there is an incident ahead. This ‘variable’ speed limit is designed to prevent further accidents by slowing down traffic. It can also be used to reduce congestion around roadworks.
Variable speed limits can change from the national speed limit of 70 mph to 60, 50 or even 40 mph depending on the severity of an incident ahead. Drivings must comply with changes to the speed limit, displayed on the overhead gantries placed intermittently along the motorway.
When the new speed limit is in place, you can be fined for going over the new limit; this is enforced by motorway speed cameras.
The rules of motorway lanes
What is each lane for?
Most motorways in the UK have three active lanes. Each one has a different purpose that drivers need to be aware of.
- Left-hand lane — The lane you should be in whenever you aren’t overtaking other vehicles. If there are no vehicles in the left-hand lane, there’s no reason you should be in any of the other lanes.
- Middle lane — The lane you use to overtake slow-moving traffic in the left-hand lane.
- Right-hand lane — You should ONLY use the right-hand lane to overtake vehicles when BOTH the left-hand and middle lanes are occupied by slow-moving traffic
What is ‘middle-lane hogging’?
‘Middle-lane hogging’ is a term used to describe the act of driving in the middle lane when there aren’t any vehicles in the left-hand lane to overtake. It’s technically categorised as ‘careless driving’. If you’re caught hogging the middle lane, you could receive a £100 on-the-spot fine as well as three penalty points.
The reason middle lane hogging is illegal is that it leads to unnecessary congestion by causing traffic to cluster in the middle and outside lanes. It can also lead to drivers undertaking in the inside lane, which, although not illegal, can be extremely dangerous and is punishable if deemed careless.
Is undertaking illegal?
Undertaking isn’t technically illegal in the UK, though it is most often considered needlessly reckless or aggressive. There are only a handful of permissible instances in which you may undertake on the motorway:
- Congestion in the right-hand lane —- If the far lane is heavily congested, you may undertake if you stay below the speed limit.
- Avoiding a collision — If a car ahead slams on its brakes and the left lane is the only one free, undertaking may be the safest option.
When is it safer to use the middle lane than the left-hand lane?
Despite the problems caused by middle-lane hogging, there are occasions when it could be safer for you and other road users to stay in the middle lane.
- When approaching a slip road — Whilst any traffic joining the motorway is required to give way to vehicles already on the motorway, it’s often safer to move into the middle lane when approaching a slip road to give cars
more room to join.
- If you are approaching a junction and have just overtaken a car on the inside lane — it may also be worth remaining in the middle lane until you have passed the slip road and it is safe to move back into the inside lane.
- When there are cars on the hard shoulder — If you see someone stranded on the hard shoulder, you should move into the middle lane if it’s safe to do so just in case any passengers step onto the carriageway or the vehicle
expectedly pulls out.
What is a smart motorway?
A smart motorway is a section of a motorway that uses traffic management methods to increase capacity and reduce congestion in particularly busy areas.
These methods include using the hard shoulder as a running lane and using variable speed limits to control the flow of traffic.
Highways England (previously the Highways Agency) developed smart motorways to manage traffic in a way that minimises environmental impact, cost and time to construct by avoiding the need to build additional lanes.
What types of smart motorways are there?
There are three types of schemes which are classed as smart motorways:
- All Lane Running — Smart motorways on the ‘All Lane Running’ scheme remove the hard shoulder and convert it into a running lane. Here, the left-hand lane (formerly the hard shoulder) is only closed to traffic
if there is an incident. The closure of lanes is signalled by a red ‘X’ on the overhead gantry or on a verge-mounted sign. It is illegal to ignore this signal. Breaking this rule will result in a £100 fine and three penalty points
on your licence.
- Dynamic Hard Shoulder — Motorways with dynamic hard shoulders open the hard shoulder as a running lane during busy periods to let additional traffic through. A solid white line differentiates the hard shoulder from the
rest of the motorway, though it is paved in the same way so that traffic doesn’t have to drive on uneven ground when the lane is open.
- Controlled motorways — Controlled motorways have information displayed in smart overhead gantries (such as lane closures and variable speed limits), but unlike ‘All lane running’ and ‘Dynamic hard shoulder’
schemes, they retain a traditional hard shoulder. On controlled motorways, the hard shoulder can only be used in an emergency situation.
What is an Emergency Refuge Area (ERA) on a smart motorway?
Emergency Refuge Areas, also known as SOS areas, are intervals every 1.5 miles on smart motorways that offer a place of safety for stranded vehicles. On All Lane Running motorways, ERAs replace the role of the traditional hard shoulder.
ERAs are often painted orange so they’re clearly visible from a distance. They are marked with large blue signs with an orange telephone symbol.
Once in an ERA, you should come to a complete stop and switch on your hazard lights. Then, exit your vehicle and stand behind the crash barrier.
For more information, read our guide on what to do if your car breaks down.
Safer motorway driving
Understanding the rules of the motorway is the best way to ensure you’re driving as safely as possible. It also reduces the risk that you’ll be involved in a motorway collision, helping you build a No Claims history over time.
At Swinton, we offer car insurance policies that reward safe driving histories with cheaper rates. To find out more, see our Car Insurance page.