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.
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’.
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:
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.
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:
You cannot drive on the hard shoulder, unless directed to do so by a road sign or a police/traffic officer.
If you are found to have misused the hard shoulder, you will receive a £100 fine and three penalty points on your driving licence.
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.
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.
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.)
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.