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Why do so many drivers fear motorways?

Motorway driving is not fun for many drivers, while some are scared of using them altogether. We look at why and how to feel more comfortable.


Ask a group of drivers which roads make them most anxious and consistently it’s motorways. And this is in spite of the fact that they are consistently the safest in statistics.

Smart motorways are the biggest concern. Research from our commercial partner road safety charity IAM RoadSmart last year found that, of 1,004 motorists surveyed, 6% of drivers were worried about motorways with a hard shoulder, but 33% of those surveyed reported that they were most worried about driving on smart motorways.

Smart motorways (or All-Lane Running motorways) were developed as a way of increasing capacity and reducing congestion by turning the hard shoulder into an extra lane at busy times with the use of overhead signs and variable speed limits, but as we have recently reported, there are still serious worries around smart motorways

Meanwhile, only 14% in the IAM survey said they were worried about driving on rural or countryside single carriage way roads, despite the fact that most road related deaths occur on them. Lack of motorway driving during the pandemic may have made some people reluctant to return.

By any measure motorways are still the safest roads in the UK. In total, 894 people were killed or seriously injured on motorways in Britain in 2019, representing 3% of all road deaths and serious injuries recorded on the roads in that year. There is far less to go wrong; all traffic runs in the same direction at largely the same speed and there are no pedestrians, cyclists or mopeds, parked vehicles, T-junctions or roundabouts. 

But of course, there’s still lots of bad driving on all motorways. Tailgating, or driving too close to the car in front is also still a major stress. National Highways found that tailgating is a factor for one in eight crashes on our roads. 

Driving alongside or ahead of an articulated lorry intimidates some people, and if you feel that there are more lorries on the roads than ever before, you’re probably right. Department for Transport stats state that lorry traffic increased by 7.9% from 2020 to 17.5 billion vehicle miles (bvm) and that 2021 lorry traffic estimates are higher than levels before the pandemic (+1.6% when compared to 2019).

Everyone should always drive in the left-hand lane when the road ahead is clear but ‘middle-lane hogging’ is the term for those vehicles who remain in the middle lane longer than necessary, even when there are no vehicles in the inside lane to overtake.

A careless driving fixed penalty offence was introduced in 2013 but vehicles which remain in the middle lane longer than necessary, even when there are no vehicles in the inside lane to overtake, cause delays, stress, and frustration among other drivers, leading some to ‘undertake.’ 

Facing the fear

The first step to overcoming your fear of motorway driving is realising it’s okay to feel this way. Learners have been allowed on motorways since 2018, so many new drivers now have more experience with motorway driving and can grow in confidence during their lessons before taking their practical test. But there are training options even if you’re not a learner.

The AA has owned BSM since 2011 and combined form the biggest driving school in the UK.  BSM is a separate brand with its own instructor base, website and booking system and AA Driving School and BSM driving instructors are self-employed franchisees. Across both brands there are upwards of 2,900 instructors.

Motorway driving lessons with an instructor include learning how to safely enter and exit motorways, getting comfortable with driving at higher speeds and practicing lane changing and overtaking.

“Our pupils are taught defensive driving techniques,” said an AA Driving School spokesperson. “Staying aware of other drivers, expecting the unexpected and responding in a calm way which keeps you safe. While you cannot control other people’s actions, you can control your response to them. Making sure you set off on your journey prepared and relaxed will help with keeping your cool if anything unexpected happens later.”

If you’re not a new driver, you can still take refresher lessons for a variety of reasons, including improving confidence with motorway driving. AA and BSM instructors set their own prices and they can also vary by region, transmission type and lesson type, but refresher lessons for qualified drivers start at around £33.

“The content of the lessons is agreed between the pupil and instructor,” said the AA Driving School spokesperson. “Some drivers may find they also want to practice skills for driving on dual carriageways or want to practice other areas like driving at night-time or parking alongside motorway driving. Our standard refresher lessons are two hours long. The number of lessons is up to the individual, but our instructors would be able to advise if more lessons could be required.” 

IAM RoadSmart’s Motorway Driving Course is also aimed at overcoming the fear of motorway driving, including smart motorways.  Aimed at people who have just passed their test or just find motorway driving intimidating. It costs £65 and last 75 minutes. Specific skills covered include joining and leaving the carriageway, correct use of lanes, judging distances, safe overtaking and what to do in the event of a breakdown. 

Tips for driving on all motorways

  • Get some experience of fast-moving traffic and mixing with lorries/HGVs on dual carriageways. 
  • Before you start out on a long motorway journey make sure you have enough fuel, check the oil and check your tyre pressures.  
  • The windows and mirrors should be clean. Check the windscreen washer fluid is topped up Also don’t forget to check your lights and indicators all work and not covered in dirt.
  • If you can, travel when the motorway will be quieter, such as the middle of the day. Friday and Sundays nights can generate heavy traffic as people go away for weekends.
  • Make sure to give yourself plenty of time to plan your route and don’t forget to factor in rest breaks.
  • Check live traffic reports such as AA Roadwatch to see if there are delays on your stretch of motorway. 
  • Try to avoid too many stimulants – like caffeine – before the drive. 
  • Turn down your music and switch your phone off to minimise distractions.
  • Speed limits are not targets – take account of the traffic and weather conditions.
  • IAM RoadSafe recommends that when travelling at motorways speeds leave a gap of three seconds, which at 70mph is about the same as the stopping distance stated in The Highway Code. The three seconds are made up of the time needed for thinking and stopping and should be at least doubled on wet roads.
  • Take a break every two hours or 100 miles.

All normal motorway rules and laws apply on smart motorways, but there are some specific points for them:

  • Never drive in a lane closed by a ‘red X’.
  • Keep to the speed limit shown on the gantries (with more cameras motorists have a much higher chance of getting caught and fined for speeding).
  • As on other motorways, a solid white line indicates the hard shoulder – never drive in it until directed by the overhead gantry signs.
  • A broken white line indicates a normal running lane.
  • If your vehicle experiences difficulties, e.g. a warning light, exit the smart motorway immediately if possible and find a place of relative safety to stop.
  • If you break down on a smart motorway head for an emergency refuge – these placed every 1.5 miles and fitted with phones to contact emergency services. If you are unable to reach a refuge but you are in the nearside lane, try to pull as far off onto the verge as possible, so long as it is safe to do so, then exit the car and get behind the barrier.
  • If you are forced to stop in anything but the nearside lane, stay in the car, with your seat belt on and dial 999.  In all cases, make sure your car is drawing as much attention as possible to itself by having its hazard flashers on.

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Russell Hayes
Russell Hayeshttps://amzn.to/3dga7y8
Russell Hayes’ early career was 14 years of motoring journalism in print, television and online. He worked for What Car? and Complete Car magazines, the BBC's original Top Gear programme and Channel 4's Driven. Since 2007 he has written motoring history books on subjects including Lotus, TVR, the Earls Court Motor Show, the Volkswagen Golf, Volkswagen Beetle and Bus and the original Aston Martin V8. Now a full-time author, two more books are in the pipeline for 2023 and 2024.
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