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Driving in the UK (for Americans)

Salt Lake City, UT
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Driving in the UK (for Americans)
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Driving in the UK (for Americans) (Canadians, too)

Having lurked in this forum for months before completing my trip to the UK, I feel I should try to contribute in a meaningful way. I realize that this post is not London specific, but since the London forum appears to receive as much traffic as the other UK forums combined, I'm posting it here.

This is my advice as an American to other Americans who are considering driving themselves around the UK. Differences in driving between the two countries are more than just the "side" of the road that is driven on. These tips were culled from two experiences we had, renting once in Newbury and once in York.

If you're not a confident manual (stick-shift) driver, forget it. Driving on unfamiliar roads with unfamiliar rules is not the time to learn. (The automatics I saw available for rent were expensive luxury cars.)

Rent the smallest car that fits your needs. A Vauxhall Astra was plenty large enough for 2 adults, 2 teens, and luggage.

The "side" you drive on is the smallest difference between the two countries. In the US, right turns are easy. In the UK, left turns are your friend. Be careful and give way (yield) when turning right!

Research the standard road signs (speed, give way, etc.) Research the meaning of the lines for parking, give way (yield), passing, etc. Research the meaning of the large spider web type signs shown as you approach roundabouts. Find out what it means when something is inside ( ). Learn what A and B roads are. Research the speed limit rules and signs.

Research roundabouts, how they work, and what other drivers expect. (The occasional one-lane roundabout at a shopping mall in the US is not sufficient preparation.) There are videos on YouTube and other 'net resources.

Using Google street view, research some of the roads you intend to drive. Notice how the cars are parked, the width of the road and the curves. Notice that there may be walls and hedges very close to the road. Notice that the road may have no shoulders (verges in the UK). Note that directional signs are often located at the exact point of turning, rather than several hundred feet in advance. The width and curviness of the British roads was a bit unnerving for us. (We're from the western US where the roads are wide and straight.)

GPS (sat nav) is a wonderful tool but a map makes it easier to plan your route. You can buy a great AA atlas at many bookstores. Try to plan your route using A and B roads as much as possible. The "white" roads on your map are likely narrow, curvy roads that are best left to the locals who are familiar with them. The sections of motorway we drove on (A6 near Carlisle and A1(M) near Newcastle) were very similar to US freeways with wide lanes and gentle curves.

As you plan your route, make note of the numbers of the roads you'll be traveling (i.e. A59, B6265)--this is much easier than trying to determine whether you need the road to Towne or Upper Towne (which may be in opposite directions). Having at least two people, one to drive and one to navigate and provide lookout is a great help.

Once you've arrived at the car rental place, turn on your GPS to allow it to "find" itself. Before setting off, make sure the GPS has a really good position fix. If not, given the arrangement of roads in the UK, the GPS may think you are not where you actually are. (This happened to us outside the York railway station.) Ask the rental employee for specific directions to where you return the car and the two nearest petrol stations.

Before setting off, take several minutes to become familiar with the controls, particularly the headlights and wipers. Determine whether the car has an Eco anti-idling feature. Ours did and we turned it off just to eliminate another unknown. Figure out how to place the car in reverse. Figure out how to locate 1st and 2nd gears quickly (for roundabouts), without going into reverse. (In one car we drove, reverse was a great distance to the left of 1st. In the other, you entered reverse by first pressing down on the shifter and then moving to the left of 1st.)

Knowing all this greatly eased our driving experience and allowed the driver to relax (partially) and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Hopefully it will help others.

London, United...
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1. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)
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Just curious was this gleaned from a nightmare drive or from your research, either way glad you survived, next step Italy that even scared me an I once drove 50 yds down the wrong carriageway in LA before a mightily hasty reverse

Salt Lake City, UT
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This was gleaned from a not-so-good first day (lots of horns honking) followed by several much better days after doing a bit more research!

London, United...
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Seems good advice

"Figure out how to place the car in reverse. ".

Wouldn't people need to do this if they hired a car in North America?

Katy, Texas
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I only drove for one day but here is my tip that I figured out about halfway through it. If you use the routing feature of the Google Maps app, it has these great diagrams of the roundabouts that it puts on the screen as you approach them. Before I had that I was always figuring out where to exit the roundabout at the last second. Luckily for me, I took a train out to the countryside before I rented the car. I wouldn't dream of driving in and around London.

Fredericksburg, VA
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We also drove in the UK, but up in Scotland, and on some of those "white" roads you mention! We took our GPS and were very happy to have it. The best part was that it would remind us which exit we wanted out of the roundabout, so we weren't frantically trying to read the signs and make sure we were in the correct lane.

We rented an automatic, and it wasn't a luxury car (a Ford Focus). But you do need to specifically request an automatic prior to arrival, as most cars available will be manuals. We can both drive a manual, but the last time we did was about 5 years ago in France. We figured there would be plenty of other things to worry about this time around.

Definitely watch the YouTube videos of how to navigate in a roundabout!! The suggestion of looking at street view on Google maps of some of your roads is also a good one. I also found a YouTube video of the road we were planning on taking from Edinburgh to Skye, so knew we were definitely not going to be on anything that looks like a highway where we're from.

I won't swear that the lanes are narrower than what we're used to, but they definitely felt narrower, given the lack of shoulders (verges). My husband, the driver, also tended to stay farther to the left because he didn't want to brush up against anyone in the opposite lane, but I was quite nervous about winding up in a ditch!

If you're on one of the single track roads, you just need to keep your eyes open for the wider "passing places" and pull into the one on your side of the road (the left, in other words) and let the other car go around you. Let the other car pull into the passing places on the right!

Salt Lake City, UT
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peterscot:

"Figure out how to place the car in reverse. ".

Wouldn't people need to do this if they hired a car in North America?

Yes, but the rental car in the US will be an automatic with reverse between P and N just like every other automatic. The two rental cars we had in England were each slightly different. The second (a Volvo) took us a few tries to determine how to place it in reverse.

Salt Lake City, UT
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I should add that we had done what we thought was adequate research before the trip. My post is the result of that and the further research we did after the first day of driving. The videos and descriptions of navigating roundabouts made much more sense after actually trying it!

U.S. expats
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I'll never forget driving with a newcomer to the UK--we were on the motorway heading, if memory serves, to Oxford. She insisted on driving.

Her--why is everyone flashing their lights and honking?

Me--because you are in the passing lane and doing the speed limit.

Her--Wow! Look at these crazy drivers! That guy almost hit me.

Me--You DON'T have the right of way merging onto the motorway.

Her--Motorway? Wow, you even talk like them. Hand me my cell phone.

There was another rather amusing part where she crossed several lanes while in a roundabout and then could not figure out how to get out of it. My life passed before my eyes.

I don't know how she drove in her native country, but I never drove with her behind the wheel again.

London, United...
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Laura I have a friend like that and she learnt to drive here, needless to say she does not drive often

Seattle, Washington
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The RAC has a great video of roundabouts and how to navigate them. I found driving on the left reasonably straightforward, but the narrowness of the roads was a bit of a challenge. Having a navigator is also quite helpful and you can confirm with them that you're turning into the correct lane (we learned to say "correct" instead of "right" :-). An Ordinance Survey map will be your friend especially in the Cotswold. I had a sign on the back of my car (used a suction cup to stick it to the window) which said "Caution, tourist driving" in big red letters (always take it down if you park someplace) and no one ever honked at me. Also of note, even though the UK is all metric the roads and speed limits (at least in England) are still in miles per hour not in kilometers.

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