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Motorway driving guide: road trip advice you shouldn't ignore

Essential driving advice, plus tips for preparing your car

July 9, 2024
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Millions of us take to the roads every summer to experience the best the UK has to offer.

As ever, it's a good idea to plan ahead to make sure your getaway goes as smoothly as possible, because there's plenty of scope for things to go wrong.

Hot summer days and holiday traffic jams put a lot of strain on cars, while driving on motorways requires some extra skills, so follow our top tips for a safe and trouble-free journey. 

Checking the level of oil on an engine dipstick is one of the simplest car DIY jobs© PixelsEffect
Checking the level of oil on an engine dipstick is one of the simplest car DIY jobs

Five essential DIY car checks

Before heading off on any long car journey, it's advisable to carry out these quick checks:

1 - Tyres

Make sure they are correctly inflated when they are cold. Recommended tyre pressures are usually found on a sticker inside the driver’s door. If not, check your owner’s manual. Whether tyres are under or overinflated, they can adversely affect handling. Incorrect tyre pressures also put you at a greater risk of a blowout, which is particularly dangerous on a motorway. Also check there's enough tread depth on your tyres (the legal minimum is 1.6mm.) and inspect them for damage (there might be a nail or screw embedded in the tread, or a cut or bulge on the outer wall).

2 - Engine oil

Oil helps to keep your engine healthy and running smoothly. Other than lubrication, oil also has other important jobs including keeping your engine cool. If your car's oil level drops too low, your engine could be at risk of seizing up or overheating, which causes long lasting damage. With your car parked on level ground, check the oil level using the dipstick either before turning on the engine or about 10 minutes after switching off. Some vehicles do not have a dipstick, in which case you will need to check your owner's manual to find out how to display your car's oil level on an information display.

3 - Engine coolant

This keeps your engine from overheating in hot weather and freezing up in sub-zero temperatures. To check the coolant level, make sure that your engine is cool and your car is parked on a level surface. Now open the bonnet, find the coolant reservoir, check the level and top up if necessary.

4 - Screen wash

Topping up the screenwash, or washer fluid, is one of the easiest maintenance tasks you can do yourself. Screen wash is a cleaning fluid that the windscreen wipers use to clear dirt from the windscreen, so keeping it topped up is essential for maintaining good visibility and avoiding smearing. Again, with the engine turned off, find the screenwash bottle or reservoir, check the level and top up. Some types of screen wash can be added straight to your car, while others need to be diluted with water.  

5 - Lights

Inspect all of the lights on your car, from headlights to brake lights, and indicators to fog lights. Ask a a family member or friend to help you, though you may be able to get away with using a reflective surface. If any bulbs have blown, it's often a fairly simple job to change them yourself. Remember, faulty lights will result in an MOT fail, which means your car is not roadworthy, so knowingly driving with a blown bulb could put you and other road users in danger.

EXPLORE: 11 of the best new cars for family road trips

Driving on a motorway doesn't have to be a nightmare - stick to the rules and stay alert© oversnap
Driving on a motorway doesn't have to be a nightmare - stick to the rules and stay alert

Motorway driving tips

Many people are nervous about driving on motorways, especially if they have only recently passed their driving test. Here’s some advice to help you feel more in control and make motorway driving less stressful:

  • Keep left unless overtaking and return to the left-hand lane after overtaking.
  • Always keep a distance of at least two seconds behind the vehicle in front of you (the 'two-second rule'), because it's essential to give yourself enough time and space to react to the unexpected.
  • Follow the 'four-second rule' in poor conditions, where the road might be slippery or visibility low, for instance.
  • Stick to the 70mph speed limit and watch out for other variable speed limits, temporary limits posted on gantries, and roadworks with restricted speeds.
  • If you need to overtake, check your mirrors for a safe gap, accelerate past the vehicle in front, and then pull back in when there is appropriate space.
  • Constantly check your mirrors and the road ahead, and indicate in good time before changing lanes.
  • When it’s time to leave the motorway, indicate and pull over to the left lane well in advance. Do not leave it to the last minute.
  • Never drive in the hard shoulder, unless directed to, or in the event of an emergency.
If you break down on a motorway the procedure is unlike any other road - follow our advice and stay safe© sonic_ai
If you break down on a motorway the procedure is unlike any other road - follow our advice and stay saf

Motorway breakdowns - what to do 

If you're on the motorway, try to pull over to the hard shoulder. If you can safely leave your car, exit via the passenger door and keep well back from the road on a verge or on the other side of the barrier if there is one. 

Assuming you have breakdown cover, call your provider. However, you're advised to wait for a rescue vehicle because it can be dangerous to attempt to repair your car yourself.

If your vehicle breaks down on a motorway without a hard shoulder, move into the left hand lane and put your hazard lights on, exit at the next junction or services, or follow the orange SOS signs to an emergency area and call for help using the free telephone.

If you can't get off the motorway or to an emergency area, move your car as close as possible to the left-hand verge, boundary or slip road, exit the car via the left-hand door, keep clear of your car and call 999 immediately

Top tip: Before setting off for a motorway journey, make sure you have these essentials in case the worst happens - a charged mobile phone, a warning triangle, hi-vis jacket, torch, food and water. 

DISCOVER: A simple guide to car insurance and 6 ways to cut your premium 

Road trips are great fun, but there's no harm in being prepared© SolStock
Road trips are great fun, but there's no harm in being prepared

Eight summer road trip tips

1 - Plan your route 

Plot your journey ahead to avoid congestion hotspots and factor in regular stop-offs, especially if you're travelling with children and animals.

2 - Stay hydrated 

Driving while dehydrated is dangerous because it can cause a loss of focus, dizziness, muscle cramps and slow down reaction times. To keep well hydrated, drinking around two litres of water a day in hot weather is recommended. You should also try to keep cool in your car by turning on the air conditioning or opening windows. Finally, if you do stop, try to park in a shady spot and get out to stretch your legs.

3 - Stop frequently 

Take regular breaks (the Highway Code advises taking a 15-minute break every two hours as a minimum) to stop yourself becoming tired behind the wheel, which is one of the major causes of road accidents. It may also help if you can share the driving on a long journey.

4 - Be animal aware

If you pull over for a break, do not leave your dog in the car. A vehicle can become dangerously hot in just minutes with potentially fatal consequences.

5 - Travel smart 

Try to avoid tackling motorways during busy periods. Broadly speaking, that means the morning and evening rush hours. The quietest time of all is between midnight and 6am, but that's usually inconvenient, especially for families. So, it's probably best to stick to the mid-morning to mid-afternoon period.

6 - Beware of glare 

Glare from the sun can impact vision and dazzle you while driving. Reduce the effects by wearing sunglasses, using your sun visor and making sure your windscreen is kept clean.

READ: How to stop your car from failing its MOT

7 - Monitor your car 

During the journey, listen out for anything out of the ordinary like a strange noise or knocking. If anything feels wrong, it might be worth pulling over in a safe place to have a quick check. Also, watch out for any warning lights and keep an eye on your car's temperate gauge too, especially in traffic jams on hot days. If it starts rising, your car could be overheating, so it might be time to take a break, rest the car and then check the coolant level.

8 - Stay informed

Changes in the weather and traffic jams ahead can turn a relatively straightforward journey into a nightmare. Newer sat navs will warn you of congestion ahead. If you don't have one of these devices, stay tuned to the radio for travel updates, or check your smartphone when you stop for a break.

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