Motorways have a high average travelling speed outside of obvious traffic jams and roadworks. The big advantage to safety on a motorway is that all traffic is travelling in the same direction. However, there are factors that make motorway driving more complex, such as having multiple lanes.
Let’s deal with four driving techniques that will make your motorway driving experience safer and more relaxed:
When you are entering the motorway from an on-ramp/slip road match your speed to that of the cars on the motorway. You might be coming from a 30mph zone, but once you are on the on-ramp, the limit usually becomes 70mph. You have from the start of the on-ramp to the end of the on-ramp to get up to 70mph otherwise the speed differential when you get to the motorway will be 40mph and that will cause other drivers to have to brake. Obviously, if you see traffic isn’t moving at 70mph, then match your speed to it.
The cumulative effect of this is that there is a chain of braking that happens right the way back up the motorway and this contributes to the start of traffic jams because it lowers the overall speed. This chain of braking increases the risk of nose-to-tail accidents. Also, because drivers have to brake and then accelerate, it increases fuel consumption and therefore atmospheric carbon dioxide and other pollutants. All that because one person didn’t accelerate to merge at the same speed!
When you get to the end of the on-ramp you need to merge like a zip. People will let you in. If you panic-brake at this point, or hesitate, you create more risk for yourself and other drivers. Other drivers know that vehicles entering the motorway from an on-ramp will be expecting to merge like a zip, so pick your slot and stick to it.
If you are moving from the left hand lane to the middle lane you will need to give enough warning to other motorists and also should aim to match your speed.
When you want to change lanes, hang back slightly from the vehicle in front, wait until you spot a gap (and if you’re driving a long vehicle, make sure it’s a long enough gap), check your mirrors, indicate, and begin to change your speed in your lane to match the speed in the lane you are moving to. This is more important for overtaking because it takes longer to accelerate than brake. If you’re on a motorbike, take a lifesaver glance. If you’re in a car or heavy vehicle, look over your shoulder and keep a watch on your mirrors. Make the manoeuvre to the adjacent lane and adjust your speed accordingly.
If you are moving to a lane on your right it will almost always be to overtake something, therefore you will need to accelerate. You should not ride in the middle or right-hand lanes if you are not overtaking.
If you are moving left, again you’ll need to check for a gap and signal before you manoeuvre. Be very careful as you move back that the vehicle in front of you doesn’t brake while you are checking the mirrors. You ideally need two sets of eyes, but evolution didn’t happen that way.
Driving too fast or too slow increases the risk that you will have an accident, or you will cause an accident.
You have a finite reaction time. It doesn’t get any quicker with age, either. The faster you go, the more distance you have travelled while your brain processes the fact that there’s an emergency to contend with. You also increase the risk that you will run into the back of traffic that is braking heavily, or traffic that misreads your speed and moves in front of you. Remember, people expect motorway traffic to be going a similar speed to them. If they are doing 60mph in the middle lane they will be expecting traffic in the outside lane to be doing 70-80mph (realistically). If you are doing 90-100mph, as well as obviously breaking the speed limit, you set up a situation where a driver cannot anticipate where you will be, and they may pull out in front of you.
As technology improves, we will have more gadgets in our cars that help manage speed, such as radar cruise control which adjusts your speed to the car in front, blind spot monitoring systems that help you change lanes more safely, and systems that warn you if you are drifting out of your lane.
Drivers that drive too slow frustrate other drivers. If you or your vehicle are not capable of driving at or near to the speed limit relevant to your vehicle on the motorway, then you probably should not be driving on the motorway. Motorways are designed to efficiently move large volumes of traffic at speed, and travelling at 30mph less than everyone else means you are preventing the system from working effectively.
Your brake lights warn other drivers you are slowing down, therefore don’t drive with your right foot on the accelerator and your left foot on the brake as your brake lights will be permanently on. This means that when you actually do brake, the car behind won’t notice and could run into you.
In general, you should make your braking smooth and progressive. If you stab at the brakes you’ll cause other drivers to panic brake behind you and that will cause a wave of drivers panic-braking behind you that travels backwards up the motorway and is a leading cause of nose-to-tail accidents and the start of traffic congestion.
If you find yourself braking frequently on the motorway you are probably travelling too close to the car in front, and this often happens when there is a slower driver ahead – you become impatient and want to get them out of the way, even if they might, in turn, be being held up by a slower driver in front of them. Here’s a video that demonstrates how a slow driver in the right-hand lane can cause other drivers to stack up behind them. Watch for the blinking brake lights.
There you have it: four techniques that’ll help keep you safer when driving on the motorway. Try out the motorway questions from the Highway Code here.
Readers: what’s your worst experience with drivers on the motorway?
Darren has owned several companies in the automotive, advertising and education industries. He has run driving theory educational websites since 2010.