What’s the difference between a freeway and a highway? - SUV VEHICLE

What’s the difference between a freeway and a highway?


Australia has both freeways and highways stretching across the entire country, but how can drivers tell the difference?

According to the 2023 Australian Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics (BITRE) Statistics Yearbook, Australia’s total estimated paved road length was 427,000km in 2022.

Of that 427,000km of paved road, just 3301km of it is classified as a freeway, and as of 2018, Australia’s total highway length was just under 50,000km.

RELATED: The world’s most expensive toll roads

With that in mind, it seems Australia seems to favour highways over freeways. Technically, the longest highway in the country is Highway 1, which completes a loop around the entire country. Meanwhile, the longest unbroken highway is the Great Northern Highway that stretches 3204km from Perth to Wyndham in WA.

As for freeways, New South Wales takes out the top spot as the state with the most freeways – totalling 1201km – and Victoria follows close behind with 1123km of freeway.

Meanwhile, the Australian Capital Territory has just 47km, while the Northern Territory technically has no freeways within its borders.

So what makes a freeway a freeway, and how does it differ from a highway? We find out.

What’s the difference between a freeway and a highway?

A freeway, also known as an expressway or motorway in Australia, is technically counted as a highway, but a highway cannot be a freeway and the two differ based mainly on speed limits, road rules and signage.

A spokesperson from the Department of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development explains: “There is no generally agreed definition of a ‘freeway’, and no formal definition across Australia. Some jurisdictions (e.g. NSW and Queensland) have formal definitions of ‘motorway’, but these do not generally align with the use of the term ‘freeway’.”

With that being said, there are still some key differences between the two in Australia.

What is a freeway?

The Open Street Map definition for Australia of ‘Motorways, freeways, and freeway-standard roads’ is that they are generally “divided roads with at least two lanes in each direction, 100km/h+ speed limit, limited access via interchanges, and no traffic lights”.

A freeway is built for high-speed and fast-flowing traffic. This means that a freeway does not have things like traffic lights and uses on-ramps to get cars up to speed. Freeways will also have a sign saying ‘Start Motorway/Freeway’.

You are not allowed to stop in your car on the side of a freeway unless it is an emergency or the car has broken down. Cyclists and pedestrians are not allowed on these roads.

On a freeway, you can expect to do speeds of up to 100km/h or 110km/h depending on what state you are travelling in (unless there are roadworks or hazards).

Freeways are also run, owned and maintained by either private toll operators or the state government.

According to Service NSW (but this extends nationwide), motorway signs also show the alpha-numeric numbering for significant national and interstate routes:

  • ‘M’ – motorways of national significance, for example, M2.
  • ‘A’ – routes of national significance.
  • ‘B’ – routes of state significance.

If you’re unsure if you’re about to get on a freeway or not, the best tell-tale is a sign that says ‘beginning Motorway/Freeway’. A highway will not have this.

What is a highway?

A highway is, by definition, a main road that connects two cities, or another kind of main route between locations.

The main difference between a highway and a freeway is that a highway does not have on-ramps, tends to have slower speed limits, and can utilise traffic lights and roundabouts.

While highways do not always have traffic lights, crossings and pedestrian access, they do have lower speed limits and these limits can change frequently along the length of the highway.

Highways are mainly used to link regional towns and cities. In regional areas, an unsealed road can even be deemed a highway if it is the main path between towns.

If the speed limit is above 80km/h on a highway, you will not come across any traffic lights or roundabouts. However, once the speed limit is lowered to 80km/h or below you can expect traffic lights and roundabouts ahead.

A highway can also have a school zone implemented, which can bring the speed limit down from as much as 100km/h to 40km/h at certain times, while a freeway will never have a school zone.

Highways are run, owned and maintained by the state government compared to local roads that fall under the local government.

The post What’s the difference between a freeway and a highway? appeared first on Drive.


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