highway in uk

Hard Shoulder: Definition and Regulations in the UK

December 14, 2023

The hard shoulder of a motorway may seem like a mere strip of tarmac, but it actually plays a crucial role in road safety and traffic management, and can be a lifesaver in the event of a car breakdown or a medical emergency. But what can a hard shoulder be used for? Understanding what a hard shoulder is and its regulations in the UK is essential for every driver; this knowledge not only ensures compliance with traffic laws but also prepares you for unforeseen circumstances when driving on the motorway. So let’s take a closer look at everything you need to know.

Definition of a Hard Shoulder

A hard shoulder is a strip of road running parallel to the carriageway on most motorways in the UK. Typically located on the left-hand side, it's distinctly separated from the main carriageway and is not intended for regular driving; instead, its primary purpose is to provide a safe refuge for broken-down vehicles while also functioning as an access route for emergency services.

When Can You Use the Hard Shoulder

Emergency Use Only

The hard shoulder should only be used in emergencies: if you encounter a mechanical breakdown or a medical emergency while driving, you're permitted to stop on the hard shoulder.

Breakdowns and Stoppages

In the event of a vehicle breakdown or stoppage, pull onto the hard shoulder as far to the left as possible, and turn on your hazard lights to alert other drivers and wait for assistance. It's also a good idea to exit the vehicle from the left-hand side and wait behind the safety barrier, if available.

Lane Management Signs

On certain motorways, the hard shoulder may be temporarily opened to traffic; this is typically indicated by overhead lane management signs. When a speed limit is displayed above the hard shoulder, it signifies that it's temporarily being used as an extra lane. If a red cross is shown, or if the signs are blank, the hard shoulder should not be used for driving.

Hard Shoulder Regulations and Guidelines

Using the hard shoulder for any purpose other than an emergency, breakdown, or when indicated by lane management signs is illegal in the UK, so if you stop on the hard shoulder for non-emergency reasons, you could face a fine or penalty points on your license. You could also be taking up space and preventing those who truly need to use the hard shoulder from accessing safety, so these should only ever be used in emergencies.

It’s also important to note that the rules for hard shoulders on smart motorways may differ, and drivers should be aware of these variations - this is especially true if you need to make a claim for a car accident.

Smart Motorways and the Hard Shoulder

road hard shoulder in uk

Smart motorways, a relatively recent development in the UK, use variable speed limits and lane management to reduce congestion. On some smart motorways the hard shoulder is used as an active traffic lane, so when driving on a smart motorway, always pay attention to the overhead gantry signs, which will inform you whether the hard shoulder is open for use.

Staying Safe on the Hard Shoulder

If you’ve pulled over on the hard shoulder, paying particular attention to safety is important. If you must use the hard shoulder, remember the following tips:

  • Pull over as far to the left as possible.
  • Turn on your hazard lights immediately.
  • Exit your vehicle from the left side and wait in a safe area, away from traffic.
  • Use emergency roadside telephones if available, as they provide precise location details to the operator.
  • Be cautious if accepting help from strangers and wait for professional assistance if possible.


Is it legal to stop on the hard shoulder to take a break or make a phone call?

No, it is illegal to stop on the hard shoulder for a break or to use your phone. The hard shoulder is strictly for emergencies, breakdowns, or when directed by lane management signs on smart motorways.

What should I do if my car breaks down and I can't reach the hard shoulder?

If your car breaks down and you're unable to move it to the hard shoulder, turn on your hazard lights to warn other drivers, stay in your vehicle, and call for assistance. If you feel in immediate danger, call 999.

How quickly should I leave the vehicle after stopping on the hard shoulder?

You should leave the vehicle as soon as it is safe to do so. Exit from the left-hand side away from traffic and wait behind a safety barrier if possible.

Can I rejoin the main carriageway from the hard shoulder without assistance?

Yes, if your vehicle is capable of moving. Ensure you build up speed on the hard shoulder and merge into the traffic safely when there is a suitable gap.

Are there any additional precautions to take when stopping on the hard shoulder at night?

Yes, in addition to turning on your hazard lights, ensure your sidelights are also on. Stay well away from the carriageway and wait behind the barrier. Wearing a reflective jacket can also improve your visibility.