The hard shoulder on a motorway is typically there to provide motorists having severe car problems a place to stop and seek help.

However, the hard shoulder is still considered to be a very dangerous place, especially when you need to exit your car in order to call for help. If you have no choice but to use the hard shoulder then knowing how to do so safely is extremely important.

To protect any passengers, other drivers and you, following the rules is crucial.

When to use the hard shoulder:

For normal motorways (not smart motorways), it is only suitable to use the hard shoulder in an emergency and when you have no other option available. Using the hard shoulder is only permitted in three circumstances:

  1. When your car has broken down – If you are having significant car problems and are posing an imminent danger to yourself or other drivers, you should try to pull onto the hard shoulder, if possible.
  2. If there is an emergency – For prominent problems with your car that you feel you are unable to continue driving then you are allowed to use the hard shoulder.
  3. The police have indicated for you to pull over – If a police vehicle has directed for you to pull over, for any reason, then you must pull on to the hard shoulder as soon as it is safe to do so.

The hard shoulder is designed for emergencies only so it is advised that if you are able to continue driving you should stay on the motorway until you reach the next service station and exit there to seek help instead.


Staying safe on the hard shoulder:

The hard shoulder poses many dangers to motorists who need to stop. Follow these protocols to ensure that you stay safe.


Leaving the hard shoulder:

Depending on the severity of the problem, you may be able to re-join the motorway. Once the breakdown services have given you the OK you can re-enter your car, doing so from the left hand side to minimise the risk. If the traffic is moving fast then you are allowed to use the hard shoulder to increase your speed before re-joining the motorway, like you would a slip road. Otherwise, re-join as normal.

What to do on a smart motorway:

Across the UK, many motorways are being turned into Smart Motorways, which use the hard shoulder, alongside variable speed limits, to ease congestion and free up traffic. In these cases, as the hard shoulder is being used as another lane, if you break down, you need to deal with your emergency differently.

Every 1.5 miles you will see Emergency Refuse Areas (ERA), with an orange-backed picture of a phone. If you can, you should get your vehicle to these areas and pull in, putting on your hazard lights. Then, you should leave your car through the passenger side, if possible and get behind any crash barriers that may be on the side of the road. From there, you can use the phone to call for help.

If you are able to join the motorway again, you should use the SOS telephone to contact Highways England again and make them aware of your intention to leave. This means that the representative can mark the nearside lane with a red X, subsequently closing the lane and allowing you to safely re-join the motorway.

If you can’t get to an ERA, you should pull your vehicle as far as you can on to the verge, get out and stand behind the crash barrier. If you can, use a roadside phone to call Highways England, but make sure you alert the authorities somehow. If you are unable to get over to the left side of the motorway at all, you should stay in your vehicle, with your seatbelt on and your hazards on, and call 999.


Nobody likes breaking down, but this information should ensure that if you do ever have to use the hard shoulder, you are equipped with the knowledge to do so safely.