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Driving in the UK (for Americans)

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Driving in the UK (for Americans)

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.

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31. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

Don't agree with post 30 - driving into London can be surprisingly easy at a weekend, and certainly no harder than any other large city.I drove in on a Saturday lunchtime a couple of weeks ago - no hold-ups, light traffic, parked just off the Strand for free, 20 minutes walk to Covent Garden.

I would agree that having a car in London as a tourist is generally a hindrance, and that starting out on a rhd car for the first time is best done on a motorway (freeway) or quieter country road, but otherwise London is no harder to drive in than anywhere else of similar size, and certainly easier than Paris.

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32. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

Whether London is hard to drive* in (on the other side of the road) or not is immaterial. It's expensive, slow and a hassle even when you've lived and driven here for cough, x years, cough - or not. Not advised for tourists at all.

* one of the main problems not being the driving but the parking.

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33. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

One thing the OP didn't mention - and apologies if someone else did, I've skimmed through this a bit - is to try and understand lane etiquette on dual carriageways/motorways which is different and don't tootle along at 72 mph in the outside lane even if it is the speed limit (which of course you should adhere to even if locals want to scoot past at 85 to 95)!

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34. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

The original post was a helpful clues to driving in the UK not how scary it is. If you are a suburban driver either in the US or UK driving into NY or LA i or London are just as bad. If you drive in the built up cities you'll get used to it

As previously posted if you are touring cities cars are a hindrance as parking charges are astronomical when and if you find a place but to get out of the centre of town driving is so much easier.

I hire a car where ever I travel to apart from NY if I want to see a few sights

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35. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

Excellent post - thanks so much for taking the time to share. I've driven numerous times in the UK, and while I've had a couple of "white knuckled" moments, the majority of time I've found it quite easy to get the hang of. I find it best if I don't allow myself to get flustered if I'm not blasting down the B roads. The impatient "speed racer" behind me can just slow it down for a few minutes until he's able to pass (and they always do pass).

One other suggestion is that you refrain from saying you're "driving on the wrong side of the road" during your visit. You'll get some very terse replies from locals!

Of course, it works both ways. UK drivers need to familiarize themselves with driving in the US, as our roads hold their own special challenges. I'll never forget our friend from Wiltshire who, upon arriving at our house after spending the day touring around in his rental car, admitted that he did drive on the wrong side, but only once. "The other drivers were SO nice and friendly -- they just waved at me and let me pass by." Um ... no. They were NOT waving. ;-)

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36. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

#30 is a bit of an over reaction, driving in London is no different to any other urban area. Parking expense and congestion charge would be the best reasons to avoid the very centre of London.

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37. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

@parklandwalk

"is to try and understand lane etiquette on dual carriageways/motorways which is different and don't tootle along at 72 mph in the outside lane even if it is the speed limit "

Are you saying the slower traffic should not be in the farthest left lane or did you mean inside lane? My experience was the lorries and caravans tootling along in the far left (outside) lane while everyone else was blasting past in the farther right lane(s).

Edited: 01 August 2013, 18:33
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38. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

Montfort the farthest left lane is what we call the inside lane even though it is on the outside. :)

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39. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

By the 'outside' lane I mean the one furthest to the right.

I remember once a woman doing about 70mph in the third lane (by the central reservation barrier) of the M1 with 2 empty lanes to her left. Don't know if she was a tourist/foreigner or not although her car looked a bit new car hire. We are not meant to undertake here although passing on the left is allowed (confusingly) so there were some irate drivers forming a (dis)orderly line behind her. After the one behind her put on his left signal she finally got the message and moved over. Basically you're meant to use the most inside lane you can only overtaking on the right not just sit at x mph in any lane you fancy! In practice things are a bit more, ahem, fluid than that because as you found the inside lane especially can be full of trucks and slower cars doing 50-60. But middle/outside lane hoggers are supposedly being clamped down on as someone mentioned earlier.

Edited: 01 August 2013, 18:41
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40. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

https:/…overtaking-267-to-269

is kind of what I'm referring to.