Motorways are the main trunk roads in the UK - somewhat similar to the American Freeways. Motorways all have the following characterics and restrictions.
- Dual Carriageways, with at least two lanes in each direction, many have 3 lanes, and some have 4.
- A Hard Shoulder down the side for emergency use only (or as directed).
- High-speed crash barriers down the sides and the middle.
- No obstructions (eg roundabouts, traffic lights). All entrances and exits are via proper sliproads (ok, not ramps!).
- Following users not permitted on motorways.
- Learner drivers.
- Motorcyclists under 125cc.
- No stopping at any time except in emergency on the hard shoulder.
The speed limit on most motorways is 70mph for cars, buses and coaches less than 12 metres in length and light goods vehicles (up to 7.5 tonnes - the maximum you can drive without a special license). It is 60mph for cars towing caravans and larger goods vehicles. Special speed limits may be imposed by roadworks or due to adverse weather, and these will be indicated by signs (metal or electronic) above or by the side of the road. The busiest parts of the M25 have a variable speed limit, intended to improve traffic flow by reducing the speed limit when the road gets busy. If this is active, it is shown on signs above each lane.
The motorways are the safest roads in the country when measured by serious accidents and fatalities by user or by mile of road. In most cases the police are unlikely to pull you over for doing less than 80mph (but don't come crying to me if they do!) However, the current Labour government has decided to add yet another stealth tax by adding automatic speed cameras to sections of the motorways.
Almost all motorways are free. The exceptions are a small stretch of the M6 which was created as a toll road to relieve strain on the main motorway, and where a motorway crosses a bridge or tunnel, there may be a toll.
When driving on a motorway, keep as far to the left as the traffic allows and only move to the right to overtake. That said, on a 3 (or more) lane motorway, it's acceptable to stay in lanes further to the right if you're travelling significantly faster than the traffic in the left lanes. Only use the right-most lane to overtake and try not to hang around in there too long.
If you have a breakdown, pull over to the hard shoulder and try to pull up onto the grass to get as far away as possible from the road. Everybody should exit the car - and if possible via the left hand side (ie the driver should climb over the central column). There are posts ever 100 metres on the motorway which indicate the direction to the nearest emergency phone, and these are located roughly every mile. They connect you to a police operator, who can put you through to a roadside assist freephone number.
Some of the major motorways in the country are...
- M1 - London to the North and Leeds
- M2 - London to the South-East and Canterbury (not Dover - thanks to Albert Herring for the update)
- M3 - London to the South West
- M4 - London to the West and Bristol and Cardiff
- M5 - North Birmingham (M6 Junction 8) to the South West
- M6 - Midlands (M1 Junction 19) to Manchester and Glasgow
- M25 - London ringroad
- M40 - London to Oxford and on to South Birmingham
- M60 - Manchester ringroad
- M62 - the "Transpennine highway" from Hull - Leeds - Manchester - Liverpool
Additionally, some "A" class roads are motorways for portions of their length. For example, the A1 (a main road from London to Newcastle and Edinburgh) is motorway for a lot of the distance to Newcastle. In these stretches, it's known as the A1(M) and the same restrictions apply as "full" motorways.
wertperch mentions The first motorway, the M1 was opened November 1959. This is somewhat true, although the Preston Bypass, part of what is now the M6, opened in December 1958.