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Driving in the UK (for Americans)

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Salt Lake City, UT
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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.

London, United...
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41. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

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

Sorry - don't agree with this at all. There are plenty of parking places in London whether on the road, in private parking places or council car parks. You just have to plan your journey a little just like you would if you were using the tube.

What tourists do need to be concerned with is the issue of traffic cameras. These can be mobile or fixed and can take various physical forms from bright yellow (usually but not all) boxes, to those on overhead gantries to those in police vans, and more.

I'll bet a penny to a pound that at least 40% of tourists have no idea whether their average speed is being measured by a SPECS camera or whether their constant speed is being measured by a GATSO camera.

I'll also bet that many people aren't aware that there are quite a few unmarked as well as marked police cars patrolling our motorways too. So that 10 year old car that gets tailgated by someone in a rush might well be the one that pulls over the tailgater a few miles further down.

How do I know? I drive between Central London and the Laked District quite frequently and see this more often than you might think.

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

There are plenty of parking places in London whether on the road, in private parking places or council car parks.


Of course there are. Att a cost. About £4-5 an hour for a meter, easily around £30-40 for a car park anywhere near a central London location. And huge fines for the unwary who fall foul of a time. I think it's completely different to park up somewhere on a visit (and then probably not use the car). As the numerous posts about where to park near a tube station or in a non resident CPZ on the forum testify. Although there is some free parking at weekends (which is when I tend to drive into central London) it can still be a minefield if you park in a controlled area. I've lived and driven IN London for over 30 years. It's not easy find convenient, cheap/free parking where and when you want it which is what most tourists need. For major sites forget it.

Edited: 01 August 2013, 19:12
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43. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

One other bit of advice related to driving: Do NOT overstay your allotted time in a pay and display car park! I learned this the hard way, returning to my car 12 minutes after my time had expired. A £25 fee was assessed, which I was easily able to pay online - but still would have preferred to spend that money on something fun!

Kingston, Washington
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44. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

This is a great thread. I'm sure we've all lost count of the number of threads started by my fellow Americans asking about most of the issues mentioned here.

For me the most harrowing thing (for the first trip anyway) was driving through towns and villages due to cars parking on what we in the U.S. would consider to be the road. It causes the driveable part of the road to narrow to seemingly impossible widths and raises the pucker factor exponentially when you're already in the constriction and another car comes the other way showing no intention of stopping. As long as you're attentive to traffic and maintain your cool, you'll survive it.

Another question I get from my friends here when they ask about driving in the U.K. is the shift pattern and pedal configuration on manual tranmissioned cars so I'll just add......the shift pattern and pedals are identical to what they'd be in a LHD car - clutch on the left, brake in the middle, accelerator on the right (for the pedals) and (at least in the dozen I've driven in the U.K.) it's a standard H pattern on the shifter with 1st gear being to the left and subsequently higher gears being to the right.

Reverse is as varied on manual cars here in the U.S. as it is in the U.K. My Fiat 500 had a ring to lift to get into reverse, my Fiat 500 Abarth has the same pattern but without the ring, my wife's Beetle is the same as every Audi or Volkswagen I've driven - push in on the shifter and go up and left. I totally understand how this can be confusing but it's not as if it's something that's related to the cars being RHD or being rented in the U.K.

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

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

If you plan to drive in Cornwall, remember that not only will you find many narrow lanes with passing places,you will also find narrow lanes and roads with no verge and high banks covered in undergrowth. Beware of these Cornish hedges, they aren't soft and bouncy if you hit them, because lurking under the flowers is a very solid stone wall

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

But you've introduced cost into it now - before it was just about there not being enough parking


Actually I didn't specify. Parking and its ease being a function of cost and availability.

And your statement about living and driving in London for over 30 years seems to imply that I or others are not as knowledgable as you.


If that's what you want to think, do so. I am merely pointing out that is based on experience of driving for leisure and work over a long period of time , 24/7/365 so is based on doing it a lot not just a few times a year or even a couple of times a month. For example I used to be able to drive in and park near my office on a Sunday (free) near Oxford Circus - handy for work and a little shopping. Can't do that now - the parking spaces have gone.

I know for most people the tube is better but please be a little more accurate with what you consider to be a negative travel option.


I cannot remember a thread about driving in central London which has suggested using a car would be better. I also don't know anyone who lives and works here who would suggest driving in Central London as a preferred mode of transport. I don't recall anyone on the forum suggesting it either in nearly 8 year Maybe the fact you've driven for work and had parking paid for is be skewing your response. (So have I btw). My point is that for the casual visitor or tourist, cars and driving are not a remotely sane option for getting round central London and sightseeing and are actively advised against.. Obviously locals do on occasion - I do as I've said but it's a pain frankly. Anyone who's watched people prowling around Waterloo Bridge or Covent Garden, or Marylebone/Fitzrovia on a Sunday or early evening will know what I mean. Not impossible but not easypeasy either.

FWIW I've often recommended picking up cars for rentals in London to go elsewhere. I'm not one of those who thinks you need to start from Heathrow necessarily. I'm not against cars per se. I own and drive one! But there's a time and a place and parking in central London is just not particularly easy. My point was aimed at tourists on a largely tourist forum. The idea that someone is going to hop in their car at the Rubens or the Park Plaza and drive around to the BM or the Tower for the day just isn't going to happen.

tbh I think you're barking (parking) up the wrong tree, getting things out of proportion for some reason and missing the point hugely. But if the casual visitor wants to drive in central London and doesn't mind the cost of parking at Westminster Abbey or the BM (assuming you can find any), congestion charging, avoiding bus routes, avoiding buses for that matter, suicide bikers and pedestrians, random road closures, etc etc, be my guest. I'm not going to stop them. Just don't say you weren't warned!

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

On another slightly related and recent thread ( sorry I cant find it just now ) a visitor to our shores said they put a sign in the back window stating something along the lines of ' Caution, Tourist Driving'. To their credit they apparently removed the sign when parking up, but even so.......I certainly wouldn't recommend it.

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

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

Yet another of example of two nations separated by a common language. In the US, the inside lane is the lane closest to the center of the road, apparently the opposite of that in the UK!

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

That is Good advice on rural roads like Cornwall's.

I love them, but The hedgerows are also tricky because you cant see the landscape and lose sense of direction. I admit to passing the same cows numerous times til I found my way out of some.

If you follow the etiquette and are prepared to reverse to a lay-by if needed, you have no issues.

Driving on the motorways is fine. I actually find the over-taking system far better in the UK than at home. In the US, we completely hog all lanes doing whateer speed we want, regardless of what the rest of the traffic is up to.

I have alway been impressed with how many people in the UK move to the lane, overtake, and then slide back to the appropriate lane. Maybe its just where Ive driven.

The Swiss, however, win all awards for overtaking etiquette.

Lastly, perhaps it's because we have roundabouts (rotaries) here on the East coast, or because I first learned to drive on the opposite in Ireland which loves its roundabouts,

I never understood why people get so freaked out about them.