In June, the law was changed to allow learner drivers on motorways, under supervision and only if they choose to do so.
Motoring journalist Sue Baker finds out what learner drivers and their families need to know before they hit the highway.
- Learner driver lessons on motorways are voluntary – not compulsory
- They must be accompanied by approved driving instructors
- The car used must be dual controlled
This is the first year that learner drivers are allowed onto Britain's fastest roads – but motorway driving won’t be part of the new driving test. In this article for LV= car insurance, Sue Baker (@carscribe) asks three experts closely involved with driver training and road safety to talk us through the new motorway driving lessons.
Are learners allowed on motorways with mum, dad or a friend who can drive?
No, reveals Lynne Barrie, an MA in driver training and chairperson of the Approved Driving Instructors National Joint Council, or ADINJC (@ADINJChq).
‘Learners can only be driving on motorways with dual controls and approved driving instructors,’ explains Lynne. ‘They can’t drive on motorways early in the learning process, but when they are near to taking the test – and they can’t drive on a motorway during the test.’
Of course, family members can still be useful in telling learner drivers what to expect.
What should learners expect of a lesson involving motorway driving?
‘Motorway driving lessons should cover things like joining and leaving a motorway, doing lane changes, when to do them, and dealing with traffic around you,’ says Peter Rodger, head of driving advice at IAMRoadSmart (@IAMRoadSmart), and former deputy head of driver training at the Metropolitan Police.
‘Some people find motorways intimidating, so a lesson should help reduce that fear,’ Peter says. ‘Motorways are statistically the safest roads we have, and the chance to learn under supervision can really help learners.'
Why aren’t these lessons mandatory?
‘That's impossible on practical grounds, because there are no motorways in Cornwall, Dorset, Norfolk, Suffolk, Rutland, and in large areas of Scotland and Wales,’ says Peter. ‘It would be unreasonable to insist that every learner goes on a motorway if the nearest is a long way away.’
Any advice for a learner nervous about driving on a motorway for the first time?
‘You should already have built up a rapport with your instructor, and you'll be briefed thoroughly ahead of the lesson, so listen to everything they say, stay calm, take a deep breath, and remember to use your mirrors,’ says Jackie Violet, a professional driver trainer, an approved driving instructor (ADI) with the Driving Standards Agency, and a member of the Driving Instructors Association (@the_DIA).
‘Do a little preparation,’ Peter says. ‘Have a look at the Highway Code section on motorways.’
How do you prepare to join a motorway from the slip road?
Peter explains: ‘When you join the slip road, try to match the speed of the motorway traffic. The slip road will angle towards the main carriageway and you can use your offside door mirror to see what’s coming in the lane you will be merging into.’
How much distance should you be behind the vehicle ahead?
‘Observe the two second gap rule,’ says Jackie. You should be able to count two seconds between the vehicle in front passing a specific point, such as a signpost, and you passing it. ‘It’s the same on other roads, but the speed on motorways means the gap needs to be longer.’
Peter agrees: ‘In a few places, there are markings on the road to help you judge this – chevrons painted on the road. Make sure you can see two between you and the vehicle in front.’
Which lane should you be in and when?
‘When you join the motorway stay in the left lane and get used to what the speed feels like,’ Peter says. ‘Move out a lane at a time if you need to overtake a slower vehicle, making sure you drive carefully and safely – and use your mirror.
‘Once you have passed the slower traffic, move back again. When you get near the exit you want, get into the left lane early to make it easier to leave – you may have to drive slower, but if you do it early it’s easier to leave safely.’
Is there much difference between dual carriageways and motorways?
‘Dual carriageways vary more than motorways – some have bus stops, pavements, lay-bys, junctions, or even house entrances opening direct onto them. Tractors and horses also use them,’ says Peter.
‘Motorways only have junctions that have slip roads to join and leave by, have no house entrances or anything similar that drivers have to be aware of.’
Jackie adds: ‘One difference is signage, and motorways have their own rules and regulations, but your instructor will brief you on that. Things happen more quickly on a motorway, so observation and anticipation are especially important.’
What signage on motorways do you need to pay attention to?
‘Some sections of motorway have special LED displays above the road. A number inside a red ring on the LED displays is a speed limit you must observe. Meanwhile, a red X means that the lane is closed, so if you are in it you should move to another lane as soon as it is safe to do so. Both rules can be enforced using cameras and breaking them can be costly and get you points on your licence,’ says Peter.
‘At night the reflective studs in the road have a colour-coded pattern. The studs between the lanes are white. The ones along the right-hand edge are orange, the ones along the left-hand edge are red. When there is a slip road it is marked by green studs.’
Motorway driving may seem daunting, but your driving instructor should only take you on a motorway when they believe you’re ready. If you still aren’t sure, you don’t have to drive on the motorway to pass your test – but getting up to speed with a qualified instructor can really help your confidence.