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Motorway 101: National speed limit, smart motorway and hard shoulder laws explained

New research suggests more than half of drivers have absolutely no idea where you pull in on a smart motorway in an emergency. We explore that and other motorway laws and rules, including the national speed limit.

Do you know what to do if you breakdown on a smart motorway without a hard shoulder? If the answer is no, fear not. A recent RAC study of 2,00 drivers found that 55 per cent of drivers have no idea and that 52 per cent have no idea what an emergency refuge area is.

So rather than ask someone and perhaps get a condescending answer, we decided it was time for a motorway 101. Because who doesn’t want to read about road laws?

What is the motorway speed limit?

70mph may seem painfully slow, but that is the speed limit for a car and has been since the law was introduced in 1965. Before that, the only limit was 30mph in built up areas but everywhere else you could do what you wanted.

70mph means 70mph, by the way. You could, in theory, be done for doing 71mph although there are very slight tolerances in place to allow for speedometer inaccuracies and account for the fact your foot may not be as consistent as cruise control.

Is there a plan to increase the speed limit to 80mph?

Given that cars are now considerably safer than ever and braking distances far shorter, an argument could be made for 80mph. In fact, a study in Denmark found that it’s not the speed itself that is the issue –  it’s actually the difference between the fastest and slowest vehicles.

The problem is that roads are now more congested so you have more chance of dating Mila Kunis than reaching 70mph on the M25 at peak time. The advent of smart motorways, average speed cameras and never-ending roadworks all contribute to a slowing road system.

There were actually talks to reduce the limit to 60mph to help reduce CO2 emissions, which would make motorway driving dangerously boring but also keep traffic at a constant speed. Stop and start congestion is the most polluting, after all, and bad air is causing a lot of premature deaths.

So why were speed limits reintroduced?

Because suddenly cars were much faster. A common misconception is that speed limits were introduced after 1964 because an AC Cobra was caught doing 183mph on a motorway, but it probably didn’t help. Brilliant marketing, though.

Originally 70mph applied to all unrestricted roads, but in 1967 the single-carriageway national speed limit was reduced to 60mph and has stayed that way ever since. The speed limit is actually 30mph unless you see signs showing otherwise, according to Gov UK.

What about the fast lane?

There is no such thing because all lanes have the same speed limit. If the road is clear, you should be in the left lane at 70mph. If you have to overtake, you move out around it then back in again. It is middle-lane hoggers who ruin the system.

You mean to say there’s no ‘slow lane’ for trucks?

Exactly. All vehicles should move to the left lane unless overtaking, but any stint on a motorway suggests this is anything but common knowledge. You can actually be fined for sticking in the middle lane, although a lack of enforcement officers means it is unlikely you will.

Can all vehicles use the outside lane?

No, which is perhaps where the term slow lane stems from. Anything towing a trailer, for example, can only use the left and middle lanes. Breaking the law can result in penalty points and a fine up to £2,500.

Does 70mph apply to all vehicles?

Vehicles pulling a caravan, for instance, are limited to 60mph and so are buses, coaches and minibuses that are longer than 12 metres. An articulated lorry can do 70mph, but only when it has left the trailer behind otherwise it’s 60mph tops. The Gov UK table provides all you need to know.

Is it illegal to undertake?

Though the law never says it is illegal to undertake, the Highway Code discourages it. Rule 268 says: ‘Do not overtake on the left or move to a lane on your left to overtake.’ It also says: ‘Do not weave in and out of lanes to overtake.’

It does, however, allow left-hand lane overtakes during what it calls ‘congested conditions’ so that means you could do it if a motorway is rather busy and no one is doing 70mph.

The thing is that the Highway Code isn’t law and one undertake would hardly be considered careless driving, but it is probably best to avoid doing it – if only to avoid getting hit by someone who fails to check their blindspot properly.

What about the hard shoulder?

The hard shoulder is there for emergencies and breakdowns. Really needing the toilet, needing to take medication or having a car sick passenger is not an emergency. In either of these instances, you are meant to drive to the next motorway exit and find somewhere to park safely and legally.

Why is it called the hard shoulder?

Because on older rural roads you had stretches of gravel along the main road that were known as shoulders. On motorways they are never made of gravel. Instead, they were as solid as the other lanes hence the ‘hard’ part of the name.

Is it true you have to get out of the car?

Yes and the reason is to do with safety. It is, after all, better to see your car get ploughed into by an HGV at 70mph than be in it at the time. It may be cold but moving away from the motorway and hard shoulder is advisable.

What about pets?

Unfortunately the rules for pets are different to humans. They should remain inside the car when broken down because it could run out into the motorway and cause itself and road users harm.

What happens if I break down on a smart motorway?

Try not to panic, then put on your hazard lights. In the absence of a hard shoulder, you should get your car as close to the nearside verge or nearside boundary as possible. If you see a blue sign with an orange SOS telephone on it, you have found an emergency refuge area and can pull in here.

What I am unable to rejoin the smart motorway?

If you can leave your vehicle at an emergency refuge area in safety, you can use the roadside emergency telephone to call Highways England. If required, a traffic officer will be sent your way to help you rejoin traffic. Or speed limits can be reduced and lanes closed to achieve the same thing.

Got a specific question about motorways? Feel free to drop us a comment.


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