Motorways are our safest roads. Despite the number of vehicles they carry and the high speeds usually involved, there are fewer crashes and casualties on motorways than on any other type of road.
However, those high speeds and the fact that many drivers leave no room for error mean that you’re generally only safe when you’re whizzing along with everybody else. Get out of your car, even if it’s on the hard shoulder, and suddenly a motorway can be one of the most dangerous places on Earth.
While cars are more reliable than ever, even if you’re a stickler for maintenance you can still suffer some form of mechanical failure, while punctures and blowouts aren’t as unusual as you might think. If things start to go wrong you need to keep everybody safe, including those in the vehicles around you – and here’s how.
Move to the left
As soon as it becomes obvious you’re going to have to pull in, work out how to get to the hard shoulder without causing carnage. Don’t even consider stopping in a live lane or chaos is bound to ensue.
Depending on the problem you may have lost power assistance for the brakes or steering or the engine may have cut out. So you don’t want to slow too quickly if you’re in lanes two or three or you might run out of momentum before you’ve got to the hard shoulder. Once you’re on the hard shoulder make sure you’re as far over to the left as possible, so you’re as far away as you can be from the moving traffic.
What if there’s no hard shoulder?
Instead of widening roads, the government is increasing capacity by building SMART motorways. During busy periods the hard shoulder is opened to traffic which means broken down cars have to pull in to laybys instead. If you can’t get to one of these before your car conks out you’ll need to pull as far over to the left as you can.
SMART motorways are constantly monitored by CCTV, and also patrolled by Highways England officers who should find you very quickly and close the lane to stop your car from being rear-ended.
Once you’ve pulled over you must ensure you and your car are as visible as possible, so leave the hazard lights on but not the headlights, as this will just flatten the battery. If it’s dark it might be worth leaving on the sidelights – whatever makes your car as visible as possible.
You should also wear a high-vis vest if you’ve got one – in many European countries it’s a legal requirement to carry one of these. While it’s not a legal requirement in the UK it’s still a good idea to carry one – and keep it handy within the car so you don’t have to get it out of the boot once your car has conked out.
It’s estimated that up to a third of motorway fatalities are because of people being struck by vehicles once they’ve got out of their broken-down car. When a juggernaut hits a pedestrian there can be only one winner, so you need to stay out of the way.
As soon as you’ve come to a halt on the hard shoulder get everyone out of the car and onto the grass verge, ideally on the other side of any barriers. Make sure everyone gets out on the passenger side of the car.
If you’ve got any pets with you it may be safer to leave them in the car – if there’s any chance of them straying onto the motorway they’re probably safer curled up on the back seat. Just make sure there’s no danger of them overheating if it’s a hot day, so keep the windows partly open to allow some ventilation and make sure they’ve got some water too.
Call for help
It’s at times like these that you’ll be glad you took out vehicle breakdown cover. You did remember to renew, didn’t you? Without this cover you’ll be charged plenty to be towed off the motorway, and suddenly the annual cost of membership will seem like the biggest bargain ever.
What you shouldn’t do is try to fix the problem yourself, unless it’s incredibly minor, you can fix it in seconds, and then get on your way. This doesn’t include changing a wheel for example – you’ll be in danger’s path for far too long for it to be worth the risk.
What you need to do instead is call for help. Every mile along the hard shoulder are emergency phones painted bright orange, which are connected directly to a help centre; pick one up and you’ll be put straight through. Every 100 yards is a post which tells you in which direction your nearest phone is located, to save you walking more than half a mile. What you mustn’t do is cross the motorway to get to a phone on the other side – that’s just inviting disaster, but it does happen.
You can use your mobile phone but it’s not unusual for the operator at the other end to then be confused as to which carriageway you’re on; motorways go in two directions remember. It’s also far from unusual for a stranded motorist to not even know which motorway they’re on. That’s why using the fixed phones is a good idea; they’re free and as soon as you pick one up, the person at the other end knows exactly where you are.
Your car may have to be towed to a safer location such as a service area for it to be fixed, or maybe straight to a garage. But if it’s fixable at the roadside you’ll need to get back onto the motorway once everything is working again. When you do this don’t just pull into lane one; treat this as the same as joining the motorway from a slip road. So get your car up to speed, put on a signal then join the traffic having found a gap.
There’s no way of guaranteeing you won’t break down, but you can reduce the chances. Check out our recent blogs on preparing your car for the summer getaway and car maintenance tips. It might just prevent that dream holiday from turning into a nightmare.