What is the speed limit on the motorway? Has the speed limit increased?

Love them or loathe them, motorways have become a big part of modern driving.

Despite their intimidating look, motorways are actually hugely safe and, as long as you stick to the speed limit, there is no real reason to hate them.

So what is the speed limit on the motorway? And has it increased?

In this article, we look at what the speed limit is on a motorway, whether it has increased recently and tips on staying safe on the motorway.

What is the speed limit on the motorway in the UK?

How fast can I go on a motorway?

Interestingly, speed limits were first introduced in 1861 in the UK as part of the Locomotive on Highways Act. This limited vehicles to 10mph, which we imagine was pretty fast back then. This was further reduced in 1865 to 4mph in the country and 2mph in the city. To be fair, that’s probably how fast you travel in London in rush hour today. Anyway, things have moved on and we can travel much faster nowadays. The UK speed limit for motorways and dual carriageways in the UK is 70mph. However, there are exceptions depending on which vehicle you are driving.

If you are in a car, motorcycle or a car-derived van – the speed limit on the motorway for you is 70mph. If you are towing a caravan or trailer then the limit is 60mph. Buses more than 12 metres long and goods vehicles with a laden weight of more than 7.5 tonnes also have a speed limit of 60mph on a motorway. So, depending on what you drive depends on the speed limit on the motorway.

What are variable speed limits?

Recently there has been an increase in variable speed limits used. These are most often found on ‘smart motorways’ across the UK. We will talk about smart motorways in a minute.

Variable speed limits work in a way that reduces congestion when required. Traffic is monitored and the speed limit is then adjusted to reduce congestion. This can be done in many ways. For example, using the hard shoulder as a live traffic lane or introducing a temporary speed limit when there is congestion ahead.

Alternatively, they can also be introduced for safety reasons. These include if there are roadworks or if there is a stranded vehicle ahead.

Variable speed limits are popular on some of our busiest motorways such as the M25, M1 and M6.

What is a smart motorway?

A smart motorway is a section of the motorway that uses traffic management methods to increase capacity and reduce congestion.

Highways England developed smart motorways as a way to manage traffic while minimising the environmental impact, cost and time to construct additional lanes.  

There are three different types of smart motorway. These include all lane running schemes, controlled motorways and dynamic hard shoulder running schemes. [vc_single_image image=”52072″ img_size=”full”]

What is an all lane running scheme?

An all lane running scheme on a smart motorway is where the hard shoulder is permanently used as a running lane for traffic.

In April 2014 eight miles of the M25 between junctions 23 and 25 became the first smart section of the motorway in the UK with traffic running permanently on the hard shoulder.

Under this scheme, lane one (the hard shoulder) is only closed to traffic via overhead and verge signs in the event of an incident. If an incident does occur in lane one (the hard shoulder)  then a red cross is displayed above the lane to let motorists know that it is closed. If you do drive in this lane when it is closed then this is illegal and you could be prosecuted.

Should you break down when there is an all lane running scheme in place then there are emergency refuge areas at the side of the carriageway for you to use.


What is a controlled motorway?

A controlled motorway is one that has three or more lanes with variable speed limits but it still retains the hard shoulder. The hard shoulder should only be used in a genuine emergency.


What is a dynamic hard shoulder running scheme?

A dynamic hard shoulder running scheme involves opening the hard shoulder as a running lane during busy periods to ease congestion. This was initially developed on the M42 and is now in operation on sections of the M42, M1, M6, M4 and M5.

Overhead signs will indicate whether the hard shoulder is open to traffic. It will also display the speed limit, of which can vary according to the traffic conditions.

The hard shoulder must not be used if the signs are blank or display a red X unless it is an emergency.

Is there a minimum speed limit on the motorway?

There are times when going too slow is dangerous and can cause increased congestion. These include motorways and tunnels. While they are rare, they do exist so it’s important that you know what they are and what they look like.

A minimum speed limit is marked by a blue, circular sign that contains the minimum speed limit. The end of the minimum speed limit is indicated by the same sign but with a red line through it.

There is no official minimum speed limit on the motorway but travelling too slowly can be dangerous and you may attract the attention of the police. You could even be prosecuted for careless driving.

Can new drivers drive on the motorway?

As long as you have passed your test, you are allowed on a motorway. However, driving on the motorway for the first time can be daunting, so here are some of our top tips for driving on the motorway as a new driver;

  • Take someone with you
    • Take an experienced driver such as a parent or a family member who will be able to guide you and reassure you if you panic
    • We advise against taking a car full of your mates on the motorway for the first time, they can be distracting and could pressure you into driving faster than you would like
  • Stick to the speed limit
  • Know how to overtake correctly
    • You should stay in the left-hand lane unless you are overtaking slower moving traffic. Avoid sitting in the middle or outside lanes.
  • Keep your distance
    • Travelling at higher speeds means you have a longer stoppage time so watch your distance at all times
  • Take regular breaks
    • You should take a 15 minute break for every 2 hours of driving and driving on the motorway requires you to be as alert as possible. Therefore, taking breaks when driving on the motorway is imperative.

How to stay safe on the motorway

Even if you are not a new driver there are always things you can do to keep safe when out on the motorway;

  • Match your speed when joining the motorway
    • Match your speed with the vehicles in the first lane. When you are on the on-ramp the speed limit usually increases to 70mph. You have until the end of the on-ramp to get up to 70mph otherwise drivers will have to slow down for you.
  • Keep an eye on the speed limits
    • Watch out for signs telling you the speed limit and be aware of whether you are on a smart motorway and whether the speed limit is a fixed speed limit or a variable one.
  • Exit the motorway properly
    • Keep an eye out for your junction and move into the first lane when you get closer. Signal left at the 300 marker and then decrease your speed when you turn off the motorway to ensure that traffic keeps moving.
  • Know what to do if you breakdown
    • Move onto the hard shoulder as soon as possible and switch on your hazards
    • Use either the orange phone at the side of the motorway or use your mobile to ring the Highway Agency. Give them as much detail as possible.
    • Get out of your car and wait on the verge and leave your pets in the car (we understand this will be hard and you probably won’t want to but it’s the safest option for you and your passengers)
    • Wait until help arrives and don’t return to your vehicle unless you have to


  • Know what to do if you break down on a smart motorway
    • Use an emergency refuge area (this is marked with a blue sign featuring an orange SOS telephone symbol on them)
    • If you cannot get to a refuge area then try and move onto a verge if there is no safety barrier and it is safe to do so
    • Switch on your hazard warning lights
    • Leave your vehicle via the nearside (left hand) door if it is safe to do so and wait behind the safety barrier
    • If you can leave your vehicle safely then contact Highways England via the roadside emergency telephone provided in the refuge areas. If you cannot leave your car safely then you will need to stay in your vehicle with the seat belt on and dial 999 on your mobile.

In conclusion, the speed limit on the motorway is 70mph unless stated otherwise. However, this can change and it’s important that you watch out for any speed limit changes. If you are on a smart motorway then you will need to keep an eye out for what type of smart motorway it is, and whether you can use the hard shoulder as a lane or not. There are many things that you can do to keep safe on the motorway including keeping your distance, watching the speed limit and taking regular breaks.

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