Motorway Etiquette. Motorquette?

Anyone who has ever driven in a car with me will know that I have an unfortunate habit,

My small dirty one, before I got it dirty

when driving, of talking incessantly about driving. Not about cars: cars are things that move people. I have a small dirty one (car, not person). I don’t care about cars, but I do care deeply, it annoys me to admit, about the unspoken rules of driving, especially on motorways.


Normally this near obsession would not be a problem – the person I was driving with would get bored and change the subject. But I currently commute for a couple of hours a day, four days a week, on my own. Sure, I listen to the angry men and women on the radio talking to the other angry men and women, but other than that I spend most of my commute talking to myself about motorway driving. I’ve saved up a lot of motorway etiquette conversation you guys, and I just can’t hold it in any more!


Okay, so lets start with the basics. If we’re going to get anywhere we need to establish some basic facts.

Whoa, hang on Phil. You’re really going to do this?

Yes. The motorway is made of one driving lane and a number of overtaking lanes.

No, but really? This is what you want to spend your free time doing? This is what you want to share with the world?

Yes. Be quiet. The default position is to drive in the driving lane. If there are no other cars around, we drive in the driving lane so that anyone behind us can overtake without difficulties. If there’s a car in front of us and we’re going faster than it, then we move into the overtaking lane and overtake it, before returning to our driving lane. It’s a pretty straightforward process. I wrote an algorithm to describe it. This is how I spent my Saturday:

  • 1. drive in the driving lane at the speed that feels comfortable to you (within the limits) unless there is someone in the driving lane who is going slower than you want to, in which case
  • 2. overtake in the overtaking lane
  • 3. now you’re in the overtaking lane, you have a decision to make:
    • 3.1. if there is no impediment, overtake and then return to the driving lane
    • 3.2. if there is someone else in the driving lane preventing you from returning into the driving lane, you need to overtake them too, and then return to the driving lane
    • 3.3. if there is someone in the overtaking lane who is driving at a speed too slow for your comfort, move to a further overtaking lane and overtake them. Return to point 3 to continue your journey.

What’s that you say? Driving with me must be fun? You bet it must!

Anyway, the algorithm is absolutely foolproof so long as you have an infinite number of overtaking lanes. Unfortunately, we only have two or three, depending on the motorway. This leads to situations when, in high density traffic, there are people who reach 3.3. and are unable to move to a further overtaking lane. So long as the other principles are being followed, although 3.3. cannot be fulfilled, the lane our driver hopes to overtake will be moving slower than their own, and so in time they will at least be overtaking, if not moving at the speed they wish. It’s the best result for them, though not what they would like. To capture this, we can add a point 3.3.1. to the algorithm:

  • 3.3.1. if you are in the outermost lane and still wish to drive faster than the traffic in your lane, you can’t. The best thing to do is remain in this lane until such a time as you can resume the normal procedure.

It isn’t spelt out there, but we can take it as read that you should remain a safe distance from the person in front of you, yes? Good.


Things get complicated when there’s an even greater volume of traffic and a smaller than infinite number of lanes. When this happens, traffic shockwaves begin to occur. Shockwaves! What are they?! Lols, I’m glad you asked.

No-one asked. I’ve stopped reading.

There was a documentary about these about 15 years ago on the TV. I remember it vividly – one of those odd adolescent memories that sticks fast despite its relative irrelevance. It showed, with the aid of clunky computer models, how motorway traffic can – at sufficiently dense volumes – create its own irrational traffic jams. The process runs thus: someone (lets call them an audi driver) taps their brakes, because they’re going too fast and realise they’re going to hit the person in front of them [incidentally, the reason they’re going too fast is because they’re trying to bully the car in front out of their way by driving dangerously close to them, but more on that later]. Lets say their speed reduces from 83 to 80 mph. The person behind our audi, probably driving a BMW or a Seat, is also too close and brakes when they see the brake lights. Because they are full of testosterone and anxiety, their amygdala is in control and causes them to react quickly and harshly, braking harder and for longer than the twat in the audi. Lets say their speed goes from 83 to 78 mph. The person behind them is travelling at a safe distance but knows what these pricks are like, so brakes as soon as they see the brake lights, even though they were only travelling at 78 mph to begin with. Their fully-justified fear causes them to slow down to 72mph, causing a second audi driver, who is right up their arse, to hit the brakes and slow down to 68mph. And so on. Even if there are people in the queue who are slower to react or who brake less aggressively, the pattern is set, and eventually – if the traffic is dense enough – the road will come to a standstill. The only way to avoid this happening is if the traffic is less dense or is moving slower (in both of these instances people can hold off braking and safely allow friction and engine braking to slow their cars sufficiently and safely).

I remember being mesmerised as I watched the phenomenon of the phantom traffic jam explained. I walked away from the TV thinking (even though I couldn’t yet drive) that motorway driving would be forever revolutionised by this new discovery. I was saddened the next weekend when I saw people still driving too close to the people in front of them, causing shockwaves and traffic jams with their inconsiderate driving. Surely in time, I thought to myself, the news will spread and everyone will know to leave a little more space, travel a little more slowly, and thereby avoid traffic jams for everyone. Surely we’ll all learn to defer the instant gratification of travelling as fast as possible, allowing our greedy little Ids to be ruled by our egos for a bit. No. No we didn’t. We had 15 years to learn the lessons and didn’t. And so now we have managed motorways.

Managed Motorways 

People are idiots. Except when they’re not. When they’re not they’re amazing. People do amazing things together. Every day, every hour you can see people daily sacrificing their own immediate needs for the broader good of society. But on the roads people are idiots. I know this because I tried not to be one: I tried for a long time to leave a little more space in front of me when driving on a densely-trafficked motorway, so as not to be part of the brake-light problem. I used a higher gear when we were travelling more slowly to avoid having to brake frequently, and accelerated less aggressively too. Unfortunately, every time I left a slightly bigger gap in front of me, some prick would switch lane and pull in in front of me. Greedy greedy little fat greedy child prick pulled in front of me, braked hard because he was going too fast in the first place, causing me to brake and the whole crappy system to be perpetuated. All because of the greedy spoilt Id-child. So now, out of a fear of losing out, I leave a less generous gap and have become part of the problem. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Because we behave like children when we drive on motorways, the Highways Agency treat us like children, giving us variable speed limits on gantries (I like very much the word ‘gantry’) when traffic reaches a certain density. This allows everyone to travel a little more slowly such that we never reach shockwave territory and so have shorter, faster journeys. We can’t do this ourselves because of greedy fat spoilt child drivers in penis-replacement cars who haven’t learnt how to defer their need for instant gratification. We have rules for those children who ruin it for everyone. It’s annoying but it’s necessary.

On my drive from Birmingham to Stoke, a large part of my journey is limited by a gantry telling us all to go at 60 mph. It has the threat (empty) of speed cameras to reinforce the message. Now, in this day and age, every vehicle on the motorway is capable of, and wants to go at at least 60mph. Even the slowest lorries can do 60 comfortably, so we’re all in it together – we’re all in the same situation: we all would like to be going faster but know that we have to go slower so that we can all avoid a traffic jam that would add to all of our journey times. We’re all in it together.

All, that is, except for the greedy manchildren in their audis. They’re not in it together. They’re part of Cameron’s Big Society [satire] – leave it to the individuals and they’ll behave admirably. Bollocks. Leave it to audi drivers and they’ll take whatever they can get with no regard for anyone else.

But how, Phil? Surely there’s a speed limit?

Yes, there is, but something strange happens under the gantries: instead of doing what is correct, which is to stay in the lane you are in at a steady 60 mph, the good people (who want to obey the rules and sacrifice their desire for more speed in order that we all get to our destination quicker), they go into the inside two lanes, even if these are moving slower than 60. Why? Why would they do this? Because of the playground bullies in their german cars twatting along at 64 mph mere inches behind them, flashing their lights and accelerating and braking sharply to intimidate the car in front. People, rightly, are scared of the shits in their shiny white cars who have such an underdeveloped emotional maturity that they value 4 additional miles per hour higher than their own and others’ safety. The good people think ‘well, it’s annoying to have to move from a lane that is clear and moving at 60 mph into a fuller lane which is moving at 56 mph, but I’d rather not be winged by the sales executive in his company car, so I’ll scoot in behind this lorry’. They are right to value their lives highly, but by so doing they are – we are – letting the audis get their way.

In any other sphere of life there would be solidarity amongst those who value the good of the many: if a sales executive cut into a queue for an ice-cream, for example, he would be roundly ousted by those who adhere to the rules. Although each individual is less powerful than the sales executive, together we are stronger. But in cars we have no solidarity. We cannot catch the eye of the driver next to us, or communicate a plan of action. So, isolated, we revert to childhood fear and crumble, clearing the outside lane for those who believe they are not in it together with the rest of us. It’s not even like this is a matter of who gets there fastest: invariably the sales executive travels no faster than 64 mph, as this is – he reckons – the furthest he can push it without getting a speeding ticket. He gets out of the gantries at most one minute quicker than the good people. No, it’s not about time; it’s a matter of principle: the whole exercise exists to mark out certain people as more important than others.

On Monday, driving to work past Wolverhampton, it was a VW with rims that was flashing me and driving aggressively until I moved into the middle lane. As I watched him pull ever-so-slowly into the distance (I passed him a little later as he had tried an ill-advised lane-switch around Cannock Chase, and got stuck in the inside lane leaving the motorway), I took note of the cars that meandered aggressively past me on my right: 4 audis, 2 BMWs, 2 VWs, plus a landrover, a SEAT Ibiza, and a Ford. What links these cars? Well, ignoring the Ford (because that’s what I drive), they are all the cars of people who think that they’re better than the average person. Buying one of these cars identifies you as belonging to a particular culture; it admits you to a club of the narcissistic and self-regarding*. Through their dangerous bullying this club has created a motorway culture that has established their right to be faster than anyone else, and to force anyone who wants to abide by the rules and stick at the speed limit into the more-crowded inner lanes. Of course, this means that those in the inner lanes are driving in more dense traffic and so are more likely to create shockwaves, which will eventually lead to traffic jams for everyone. 

Unthinkingly, I bought into that culture, valuing my own safety and nudging my way into the middle lane as soon as whichever twat it was started shoving up behind me. BUT NOT ANY MORE. No. From now on I am not moving out of the lane I am in while the traffic is under gantry management. I am obeying the speed limit slavishly, regardless of the distance of the twat behind me. Unless we, the majority who know we are all in this together, make this clear to the Little Terry Freeloaders who think that they’re special, then we will all be accepting that the bullies have a right to exist. If we could lean over and shout an encouraging word to the nissan micra who was being abused by the audi, we’d have a chance of working together to beat the bullies, but encased in our shells, our only option is to stand up as individuals. Sure, it’s a tiny protest, but if everybody did it, we would have a more egalitarian motorway, and, more importantly, one in which we can all drive faster, and get to work on time. And, more importantly than that, I can stop muttering to myself about twats and audis.


* I typed ‘audi twat’ into the googles to try to find a nice picture for this piece of, ahem, motoring journalism and came across a number of articles noting the same connection I’ve found between driving an audi and behaving like a greedy, ruddy-faced, spoilt child. Most of them contain a sentence like “otherwise decent people become twats as soon as they step into an audi” or “there must be something about the audi that turns normal people into twats”. No. This is not true. If you decide to buy an audi you are already allying yourself with a certain group, and adopting an identity that has already been formed by other audis. Buying an audi is a moral decision: buying an audi, given what we all know about audis, is a way of saying “I am not a part of this society. I am special. I belong on a higher plane. We are not in this together”.

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