Hard shoulder on the motorway

What is a hard shoulder?

Last updated August 9th, 2023

A hard shoulder is the emergency lane which runs along the left-hand side of a motorway carriageway.

Indicated by a solid white line, the hard shoulder runs alongside the rest of the motorway and provides a space for drivers to stop in the event of an emergency. Hard shoulders on UK motorways have a standard width of 3.3 metres.

In this guide, we will explain where you can find hard shoulders and define their purpose. We’ll also cover the rules around their use – and the penalties you might face for misusing a hard shoulder.

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Where is the hard shoulder on a motorway?

The hard shoulder on a motorway is located on the left-hand side, on the hardened strip of land that runs along the edge to the left-hand lane. It is sometimes also referred to as ‘lane one’.

What motorways have hard shoulders?

Hard shoulders have featured on UK motorways since they were first introduced in the late 1950’s.

They used to be a consistent feature on every motorway, but since the introduction of smart motorways, this is no longer always the case.

Whether and when you’ll see a hard shoulder on a smart motorway depends on the motorway type:

  • All-lane running smart motorways: These don’t have a hard shoulder, as the lane that previously fulfilled this role has been changed into an additional traffic lane on a permanent basis.
  • Controlled smart motorways: Much like conventional motorways, ‘controlled’ smart motorways have a permanent hard shoulder.
  • Dynamic smart motorways: These have a hard shoulder lane which is used as a conventional hard shoulder most of the time - but is sometimes repurposed as an additional traffic lane to ease congestion during busy times. Overhead signage will indicate whether the hard shoulder is currently open.

What is the purpose of a hard shoulder?

The hard shoulder acts as a place for broken-down vehicles to stop safely away from the flow of oncoming traffic - and also doubles as a lane for emergency vehicles to bypass traffic with minimal disruption.

When should the hard shoulder be used on the motorway?

In most circumstances, it is illegal to use the hard shoulder - and you may be penalised if caught doing so. However, there are several scenarios in which driving on a hard shoulder is permitted:

  • Use of the hard shoulder is usually limited to emergency situations (e.g. when your vehicle has broken down or is involved in a road accident).
  • The hard shoulder can be used by emergency response vehicles, as it allows them to bypass traffic to promptly attend to road accidents.
  • You should also use the hard shoulder when directed to do so by a traffic police officer or Highways Agency patrol officer.
  • Yellow signage may also indicate when it is permissible to use the hard shoulder. (This may be due to roadworks or an incident on the road).
  • Whilst driving on a smart motorway, you may encounter signage indicating whether you can drive on the hard shoulder. If you’re unsure whether this is allowed, don’t use the hard shoulder. It’s better to be safe than sorry!

What are the rules for a hard shoulder?

  • Don’t drive on the hard shoulder unless it’s for one of the reasons highlighted above.
  • Only stop on the hard shoulder in an emergency. Phone calls and bathroom breaks don’t count as emergencies.
  • When you are using the hard shoulder for an emergency, pull over as far to the left as possible and put your hazard lights on. Please see our guide ‘What to do if your car breaks down’ for more tips and guidance.

Can you drive on the hard shoulder?

You cannot drive on the hard shoulder, unless directed to do so by a road sign or a police/traffic officer.

What is the penalty for driving on the hard shoulder?

If you are found to have misused the hard shoulder, you will receive a £100 fine and three penalty points on your driving licence.

How do you join the motorway from the hard shoulder?

To join the motorway from the hard shoulder, you should begin by getting up to speed (just as you would on a slip road) and make it clear that you want to join the motorway by signalling. Don’t force yourself onto the motorway; wait for a space in the traffic - and merge when it is safe to do so.

What happens when you stop on a hard shoulder?

If you must stop on the hard shoulder, you should park to the far left of the road, put your hazard lights and sidelights on to warn other drivers that your vehicle is stationary, then get out of your car using the left-hand door. You should wait behind the barrier until you are ready to leave.

I’ve broken down on the hard shoulder – what should I do?

Follow the steps above telling you what to do if your car breaks down and ensure that you are in a safe place, away from moving traffic.

From here, you can call National Highways or the police on your mobile phone or on an SOS emergency phone. (These can be found every mile along the length of the hard shoulder, encased in bright orange boxes, so you can spot them easily.)

Frequently Asked Questions

You should avoid standing on the hard shoulder when you are waiting for assistance, but if you need to walk to an emergency phone, you can walk on the hard shoulder. (Just be aware that this can be dangerous.)

Providing it is safe to do so, every passenger should exit the car using the left-hand doors. You shouldn’t stay in the car as this could be dangerous.

Even if you drive on the hard shoulder accidentally, you could still be fined if you are caught by the police or an ANPR speed camera on a smart motorway.