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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.

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

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Edited: 03 August 2013, 03:46
Liverpool, United...
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62. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

Yes, I do agree that the London forum "appears to receive as much traffic as the other UK forums combined" - but mainly about Oyster cards, 2 for 1, and the weather. ;-p

One bit of advice though, for driving in the UK - feel free to speed and park on double yellow lines, because the latter, especially, are never enforced.

Basically, feel free to drive like a donut, like the majority of car drivers do in the UK.

Goodness knows how the majority of car drivers in the UK managed to pass their driving test; because, for most of them, the Highway Code they had to learn and practice goes straight out of the window once they pass their test! :-/

Edited: 03 August 2013, 03:48
london
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63. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

matt, you're obviously having a sleepless night so let's forgive you your grumpiness

personally I think the majority of drivers in the UK (and many other countries) are pretty disciplined, otherwise it would be total Armageddon out there

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

<<But I really think trying to shift with my left hand while driving on the opposite of the road in an unfamiliar place would be way too much for me to handle! >>

Stephanie, yes!! It is like this game kids play where they pat their tummy in a circular fashion and tap their head, but cannot quite keep the system going? Automatic transmission in GB is the way to go. It costs more to rent but well worth it. Not outrageously more in any way.

I also think that GPS is invaluable, particularly anywhere within a city limit, even a small city, and it does instruct as to which lane to get into within the roundabout.

In short, it can be done. Not easy but doable. Every trip husband threatens that this would be his last driving on that funky side of the road and then I have him change his mind. :) He is slowly improving though.

I found drivers in the UK to be generally good and courteous.

Hampshire, England.
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65. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

"One bit of advice though, for driving in the UK - feel free to speed and park on double yellow lines, because the latter, especially, are never enforced.

Basically, feel free to drive like a donut, like the majority of car drivers do in the UK.

Goodness knows how the majority of car drivers in the UK managed to pass their driving test; because, for most of them, the Highway Code they had to learn and practice goes straight out of the window once they pass their test! :-/"

Well, I'm not sure where your driving but I've found the standard of driving (compared to other countries) to be good in the UK and so have visitors from other countries that I've driven around. You'll always have irritations though, "white van man", old men/women that do half the speed limit on single carriageway roads, people overtaking cars/lorries on a dual carriageway doing 60 when the vehicle they are overtaking is doing 60, causing a long tailback behind them but i think you get this to varying degrees in other counties as well.

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

I don't know if there is a record for the longest thread but this one seems to have legs and I have kept quiet for as long as I can.

"Basically, feel free to drive like a donut, like the majority of car drivers do in the UK."

I beg to differ. I have driven through a number of towns at rush hour when the traffic lights have failed across the town centre. Rather than leading to death, mayhem and anarchy the traffic has in fact flowed faster and been less stressful than when the lights were working which has to say something for the inherent good sense of most road users.

Not sure what would happen if you tried it in somewhere like London! If Boris decides to try I will make sure I stay safely north of Watford that day!

Edited: 03 August 2013, 10:54
London, United...
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67. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

Such things happen in London also, and anarchy does not generally ensue.

Some posts here remind me of a driver characteristic which seems to be universal....

" I'm an excellent driver, it's just everyone else that's rubbish"

Liverpool, United...
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68. Re: Driving in the UK (for Americans)

Have you ever tried driving in Bath?

Well, when I say "drive" I mean "sit in a traffic jam".

So for all Americans driving in the UK, you should also be aware of one of our nations favourite pastimes - playing "eye spy" while sitting in traffic jams.

Perhaps the best day to play this game is on a bank holiday, when the majority of car drivers think it will be a good idea to drive to the seaside....

...all at once!

"I spy, with my little eye, somthing begining with "C"!" ;-p

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

It is a strange thing that if one passes the test in an automatic car in the UK then it doesn't cover driving a manual car, but drivers from countries where they don't distinguish manual/automatic can just go ahead and hire a manual car. I would definitely recommend paying the extra and requesting automatic - one less thing to think about.

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

Matt, I know your default position is that everything is worse here, but traffic jams are not unknown in the US. I once spent a very long time indeed on the LA freeway, and I don't think that's uncommon.

In general driving here is not the dangerous blood sport that some UK residents seem to believe.