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  • Emma Hallett

Motorway traffic jams

After being stuck on the motorway yesterday in a 2 hour traffic jam I was thinking about how I could use that for training purposes. So I got to thinking about what I was looking out for when driving through this and how I could make it useful for people. Obviously most of the time you are on a motorway you will be travelling at speed so it’s quite strange when everything grinds to a halt and you end up applying the handbrake and maybe even turning the engine off because you haven’t moved for so long. I was fortunate that most of the time I was moving, although at 10 mph, but there were stop/start sections too. The cause of this traffic jam was simply volume of traffic, there were no accidents that I saw although plenty of vehicles stopped in the hard shoulder. Serves me right really for travelling home to Devon at 4pm on the Friday before the bank holiday which also happened to be half term – if I hadn’t had to go on a course I wouldn’t have done it because I knew it would be crazy. I considered my options and decided that as I was leaving Birmingham it would make sense to go at 4pm rather than hang around until after rush hour as by then people from further north would have reached the M5. I could have stayed overnight but the Saturday was supposed to be the busiest day for traffic so unless I intended to leave very early I would be no better off, so queue I would.

When driving on a motorway there are small rectangular signs on the central reservation (and sometimes overhead) that give you useful information about the situation ahead, for example “fog” or to tell you a lane is closed. Most importantly these sometimes display speed limits and if there are also flashing lights on the sign this is a mandatory speed limit, until you see a sign that is not flashing or says “end”. From my experience most drivers either don’t understand what this means, don’t care or haven’t seen the sign as everyone else on the road appears to continue driving at the speed limit. This can make you quite vulnerable so drive in the left hand lane. These signs are displayed because there is a problem ahead, a reason why you should drive slower, for example, congestion or road workers.

Something else to look out for if you are driving where there are smart motorways is the variable speed limit signs shown overhead. Ensure you are slowing down on approach if the speed limit is reducing, the same as you would for any other speed limit sign. At each set of overhead signs the speed can change so make sure you are looking out for this. Sometimes they will show the national speed limit sign so you can go back to 70 mph if safe to do so. Pay attention to the overhead signs as they will also tell you if the hard shoulder can be used as a normal driving lane or only to take an exit or not at all unless you’ve broken down. If you see a red X on the overhead sign you can’t continue in that lane.

Think about emergency services vehicles when you are queuing as there may be an incident ahead that they need to get to. Look out for blue lights in your mirrors and listen for sirens. In a queue the vehicles will need to create space in the centre for the emergency services to get through. If there is an incident blocking one or more lanes the Police may well be directing traffic so be patient and pay attention to instructions. They may need to close the road completely to allow recovery work to take place.

Motorbikes will filter through traffic the same as they would on town roads so keep a close eye on mirrors, especially when changing lanes.

You can overtake on the left in queueing traffic, use common sense to decide what constitutes a queue. There is little point in changing lanes to try and beat the queue, this is high risk in heavy traffic and ideally you would only do this to allow you to take an exit. Be very aware of your mirrors when changing lanes as there are blind spots, signal for a couple of seconds before you move so you can do a final check and others have time to see your signal. Look out for other traffic trying to move into the lane you want.

Remember to plan your rest stops well and listen to local traffic reports so you are aware of where the problems start so you can take a break before joining the queue if necessary. The hard shoulder is for breakdowns not for rest stops.

Lots of accidents happen in slow moving traffic, especially in situations where you may be tired and frustrated. Plan ahead, don’t just look at the brake lights of the vehicle in front, if you can see further plan further ahead, lorries are useful for this as their brake lights are higher up but if you are immediately behind a lorry you won’t be able to see anything. Always leave a safe space around your car and if necessary leave extra space ahead if someone is close behind and if you are feeling tired as your reactions will be slower. Apply the handbrake when stopped and put it into neutral if appropriate so you can rest your feet and the car is secure. You will start to feel stiff after a while so if possible pull into a services to stretch your legs or do some stretches inside the car, e.g. if you are stopped stretch your arms out ahead of you, move your head side to side etc. Remember – ideally you would take a 20 minute break every 2 hours, this may not be possible if you get caught in a queue.

If you are driving in the left hand lane be aware of people trying to move into your lane to take an exit and also anyone trying to join from a slip road. Although slip roads are ‘give way’ in queuing traffic it’s more sensible to adopt a ‘merge in turn’ mindset so long queues on slip roads (which may potentially affect other routes) can be avoided.

At a point where I was driving at a more reasonable speed (I was in 4th gear) a car pulled out from the hard shoulder causing me to brake as it was not safe to change lanes. This could have caused significant problems with traffic behind me. If possible you can use the hard shoulder to build up some speed in heavy traffic so you can join traffic at a better matched speed. Obviously in lighter traffic this would probably not be necessary.

Be aware of what to do if you breakdown and try to keep track of where you are and where the emergency phones are in case you need to call for assistance. You can minimise the risk of a breakdown by checking your car is fit for the journey beforehand by checking the following:

Petrol (or diesel) – especially important if there is likely to be traffic as you may get caught out


Water – all fluids including washer fluid and coolant

Damage – you don’t want any loose pieces of your car flying off at speed

Electrics – all lights

Rubber – check your tyre pressures and tread

Route planning is quite important, ensure you know if there is alternative route that you can take. Sat navs can help with this and listen to traffic reports for any problems on alternative routes.

I hope you’ve found some useful information here. It’s not often that you will get stuck on motorways but when you are there are some specific things you need to look out for.

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