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motorway driving

On The Road - Motorways

As part of our Start Safe, Stay Safe campaign, we take a look at some of the most challenging aspects of being a young or new driver.

Are people nervous of motorways?

According to research carried out by the AA, more people are scared of the motorway than you might think. Aside from the fact that over 5 million motorway-avoiding routes were calculated by fearful drivers using the AA's Route Planner service, further surveys discovered that less than half of 18-24 year olds felt confident driving on the motorway. We found from our , run in association with the Driving Instructors Association and the road safety charity Brake, that 90% of people think that motorway driving should be part of the official test. But why? Well, it’s very different from any other type of driving, and often the high speeds, specific rules and lack of experience can make young or new drivers feel nervous.

So, to help you out, we’ve put together this handy collection of tips, tricks and rules for anyone getting ready to tackle this thoroughfare for the first time.

Are they dangerous?

A unique type of road like this comes with its own set of very specific dangers, most of which contribute to the fear associated with driving on the motorway for the first time. Some examples of dangers that can cause a collision are:

  • Other cars driving too close (tailgating)
  • Distractions from passengers, music or other in-car experiences
  • Signalling errors
  • Misuse of the hard shoulder
  • Bad transition from a slip-road onto a motorway

Of course, these are all significant risks, but actually motorways are considered one of the safer ways of getting from A to B. Not only are most of the cars travelling in the same direction at similar speeds along a simple, straight road, there’s also a distinct absence of hazards, from L-plate drivers to pedestrians. They even feature roadside emergency telephones that automatically share your location with the emergency services. Compare a motorway to a windy country road filled with rogue foxes, twists, turns, bad lighting and potholes and suddenly it seems far more appealing.

Why are country road collisions often more serious than motorway crashes?

The answer is simple and rooted in physics. When two vehicles that are driving in opposite directions collide, the force is equal to the sum of their speed. For example, if two cars driving at 30mph and 20mph collide – they will have a crash that has the force of 50mph.

However, if two cars that are travelling in the same direction collide, the force of impact comes from the differences in their speed. So, if a car travelling at 90mph crashes into another car that’s travelling at 70mph then then the impact will only be 20mph.

Of course, the high speeds on motorways do mean that when crashes happen, cars can tumble, flip or are hit multiple times, but it’s generally agreed that motorways are safer than A or B roads [1].

Ask an expert

Jenny Tipping

Jenny Tipping is an experienced truck driver, CPC trainer and advocate of women working in male dominated areas. When she's not driving, she's turning her successful Notes From The Driving Seat blog into a book. We spoke to her about some of her experiences on the road...

Is it easy to tell when someone is new to driving on the motorway?
The area where it is most noticeable is when they are joining the motorway in the first place. To successfully join a busy motorway, drivers have to process a lot of information - how much traffic is on the motorway, road and weather conditions, how fast their car can accelerate into the space available, and all this has to be done in a split second. This is understandably really tough for a new driver.

What do new drivers need to know about lorries on the motorway?
They take a long time to do anything. A fully laden artic weighs about 40 times as much as a car. They are highly engineered vehicles, but the sheer weight means that both slowing down and speeding up can take a long time. At all times, but especially in bad weather, the driver will want to know a long way in advance if they have to change lane because any sudden movements at 56 mph can make the lorry unstable - and an unstable lorry is a very dangerous thing for everyone on the road. So, when joining a motorway or changing lane, it is much safer to slow down and wait for the next gap than to risk causing a lorry to make a sudden movement. This isn't just courtesy to the lorry driver, it is about safety for everyone.

What are the main ways that lorry driving and car driving differ - especially on the motorway?
A car driver on a motorway is generally using it to get from A to B as quickly as possible. A lorry driver is quite likely to be on the same stretch of motorway every day of their working life so his or her primary focus is on getting their job done safely and comfortably, and getting home at a reasonable time.

Do you have any safety tips to pass on to new or young drivers?
In my experience, the thing that causes the most danger on the roads is actually in the mind. Lorries are not there to irritate car drivers! The roads would be much safer if all drivers recognised that everyone just wants to get to where they are going safely.

What's the most frustrating part about lorry driving on a long motorway journey? Any favourite parts too?
Congestion is frustrating for everyone. Crawling along the M25 at 5pm on a Friday is no one's idea of fun! The beauty of motorway driving in a lorry is that you are high up, so you feel far less hemmed in by congestion than you do in a car. My favourite bit of motorway driving in a lorry is when I spot a kestrel sitting on a lamp post or red kites circling next to the M40.

What’s the key lesson for new drivers to learn when using the motorway for the first time?
Young and new drivers should treat motorways as a challenge to be as good a driver as they can be. This is not about the skill of handling the car, it is about an awareness of how the roads work, and developing a sixth sense of what other people might do. It can take time to build this sixth sense up, but if you go in with the right attitude, you will build it up much more quickly.

You can follow Jenny at @JennyTipping for more trucking tips!

Dos & don'ts of motorway driving

There’s a strict code of conduct on the motorway, and if you break it, you’re seen as both reckless and rude. Before you head off on your journey, familiarise yourself with motorway etiquette:

DO: Give people space to breathe.
Tailgating is unsafe and unfriendly, and the more space you give people, the easier it will be to react to surprises at high speeds. Always allow at least a 2-second gap between you and the car in front, and double it if it’s raining or foggy. If it’s icy you’ll need to make the gap even bigger, the Highway Code recommends 10 seconds.

DON’T: Get distracted.
Fiddling around on your mobile phone, trying to tamper with the music player – it’s not worth it. Get your hands-free system set up before you set off and you’ll be safe, rather than sorry.

DO: Use the middle lane near slip roads, if it’s safe to do so.
Yes, it goes against instinct, but it’s a kindly gesture so that people who are coming down those tricky slip-roads can easily merge with the motorway traffic.

DON’T: Hog the middle lane, however.
There’s nothing more frustrating than a slow-moving driver who refuses to re-enter the left hand lane after overtaking someone. This kind of behaviour prompts reckless behaviour, such as undertaking or speeding in the right hand lane.

DO: Let people know if they have a problem.
It’s not always clear your vehicle has a problem when you’re too busy concentrating on driving to notice. If it catches your eye that someone has a flat tyre or that their car is smoking, flash your lights and you could prevent a serious accident.

DON’T: Show off.
If traffic is heavy, sometimes it’s hard not to glance into someone else’s car and a little eye contact can spark a whole host of problems. Forget about inflating anyone’s ego with a dangerous race – just stick to the 70mph speed limit.

DO: Stay switched on.
Motorway driving can become monotonous, and it’s all too easy to go into autopilot. It’s vital to be aware of hazards at all times, and not just the ones right in front of you. Use your mirrors to be aware of other vehicles. That way, you’ll avoid nasty surprises, like someone suddenly tailgating you because you've been hogging the middle lane. Another good trick is to ease up on the accelerator if you see other cars braking in the distance. Many motorway hold ups (and some accidents) are caused by unnecessary braking.

DON’T: Drive if you’re tired.
If you’re covering long distances, make sure you take regular breaks to wake up your muscles. Motorway driving can be stressful, too, and it’s easy to underestimate how exhausting that constant low-level anxiety and concentration can be. You’ll be surprised just how refreshing it is to stretch your legs and get some air.


Have you recently tackled the motorway for the first time, or are nervous about doing so? We’d love to hear from you. Tweet us @NatAccHelpline and share your stories with us.

Remember, if you suffered an injury from a motorway accident that wasn’t your fault, you could be entitled to compensation. Get in touch and we can help you through the first steps of your personal injury claim.

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