The motorway is often a convenient and quick way to travel long distances, but what happens when you encounter a problem? Would you know what to do if your car started having problems, or if a lane was suddenly closed? Read on to find out more about coping with motorway problems.

If you take away just one piece of advice from this article, let it be this: only stop on the hard shoulder in an emergency. If you stop on the hard shoulder, do not stay in your car, it is extremely dangerous. Leave your car straight away via the left hand side, and stand well away from the road, facing the oncoming traffic.

For our ‘what to do’ guide for accidents on the motorway, please click here.


If you have car trouble

If you sense there is a problem with your car, you should leave the motorway at the next exit or pull into a service area, then stop the car.¹ If neither of these options is possible, follow the instructions below, under ‘If your car has developed a problem and you can’t make it to the next exit’.


If your car has developed a problem and you can’t make it to the next exit

Rule 275 of the Highway Code explains what to do in this situation: 

  • Pull over onto the hard shoulder and stop as far to the left as possible, with your wheels turned to the left
  • If you can, stop near an emergency telephone (you’ll find these once a mile on average). This is what an emergency telephone looks like:


Phone emergency motorway

© Ian Britton via FreeFoto


If you can’t see the nearest emergency phone, these signs, located at the back of the hard shoulder every 100 metres, will show you the direction of the nearest phone.²

Left hand side sign


  • Make sure you and your passengers leave via the left hand side of the car – not the road side
  • Never try to put out a warning triangle or attempt any repairs
  • Walk to an emergency telephone. This is free of charge and connects directly to the Highways Agency or the police who will know your location. Avoid using your mobile phone. Always face the traffic while you use the emergency phone.
  • Give full details of what’s happened to the Highways Agency or the police; also let them know if you are a vulnerable motorist such as disabled, elderley or travelling alone
  • Return and wait near your vehicle, but stay to the left of the barrier, well away from the carriageway and hard shoulder. Keep facing the traffic so you can see what’s coming towards you at all times.
  • If you feel at risk from another person, return to your car by a left-hand door and lock all doors. Leave your car as soon as you feel this danger has passed.


If you need to stop the car

The Highway Code says you must never stop on the hard shoulder of the motorway, unless it’s a genuine emergency. Stopping on the hard shoulder is incredibly dangerous.


When you can and should stop on the hard shoulder:

  • If it’s a genuine emergency
  • If the incident cannot be dealt with anywhere else
  • If you break down
  • If you’re instructed to by the police³ or Highways Agency traffic officers in uniform⁴


When you can’t and shouldn’t stop on the hard shoulder:

  • If you need to make a phone call. Wait until you can leave the motorway and stop in a safe place, or visit the next service area and park safely there.
  • If you’re feeling tired. Stop at the next service area, take a break, drink two cups of caffeinated coffee and take a short nap of at least 15 minutes before continuing your journey.


Never use the hard shoulder to overtake another vehicle.⁵

If you run out of fuel


First of all, do not let this happen! Always make sure you have enough fuel in the car before you join a motorway. Remember you’re going to be driving at high speeds so you’ll be using more fuel than you would on slower roads.

[symple_toggle title=”Did you know”]The RAC is called out to around 22,000 incidents each year where the car has run out of fuel.⁶[/symple_toggle]

If you find yourself running low on fuel, leave at the next exit or pull over to the next service area and fill up straight away.

If you do run out of fuel and you can’t make it to the next exit or service area, follow the instructions above under ‘If your car has developed a problem and you can’t make it to the next exit’. Make sure you tell the police or Highways Agency if your car is petrol or diesel in this scenario.


If there are motorway road works

There’s not much you can do about road works on the motorway except stay alert and watch out for any signs asking you to change lane, or leave the motorway at the next exit (see ‘If you can see signals above the road’ below).

Here are some common road works signs, some of which you might encounter on the motorway.

Road works sign

Source: The Highway Code: traffic signs, under Open Government Licence v3.0


If the cars ahead of you are slowing down very suddenly

Make sure you always leave a safe distance between your car and the car in front so you’re prepared in case this happens. If you’re travelling in bad weather, leave double the amount of space that you usually would and reduce your speed.

The Highway Code⁷ gives the following advice regarding the use of your hazard warning lights:

[symple_box color=”gray” text_align=”left” width=”100%” float=”none”] “These may be used when your vehicle is stationary, to warn that it is temporarily obstructing traffic. You MUST NOT use hazard warning lights while driving or being towed unless you are on a motorway or unrestricted dual carriageway and you need to warn drivers behind you of a hazard or obstruction ahead. Only use them for long enough to ensure that your warning has been observed.”


If you can see signals above the road⁸

The images in this section and the next are via Know Your Traffic Signs © Crown copyright 2007.
Motorway signals warn you of danger ahead, so look carefully and react as quickly as you can.

Remember motorway signals can either apply to all lanes or specific lanes, depending on the hazard.


If you see amber flashing lights, this means there’s a hazard ahead. The sign might show a temporary speed limit, lanes closed ahead (see below for more information on lane closure signs), or a message like ‘fog’. Gradually adjust your speed, move into another lane if instructed to do so, and stay alert. Only once you see a signal that is not flashing, or the ‘End’ sign (see above), can you increase your speed and move back into your previous lane (if appropriate).⁹

motorway turn

The sign above means move to the next lane to the left. This sign might also point downwards and to the right, in which case you should move into the adjacent lane on the right.

motorway close

If a red flashing X sign (like the one above) is displayed above a lane or several lanes, move across to a permitted lane as quickly as possible while staying safe. You must not continue in any lane with a red X above it.

The motorway is closed ahead

motorway move left

The sign above means you must leave the motorway at the next exit. Make sure you move towards the left-hand lane so that you are prepared to leave when you reach the exit.

If you need to plan an alternative route, make sure you do so when parked in a safe place. Do not try and read maps or programme a sat nav while driving.