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Driving in the U.K.
1. Rent an Automatic Transmission: unless you drive a standard transmission in the U.S. on a daily basis, you’d be better off paying extra to have an automatic transmission. Why? It’s already confusing enough to drive on the “wrong” side of the road, but now you’re seated in the right side of the car with the gear box on your left side. If you’re right-handed, this makes learning to shift with your left hand all the more challenging. Throw in down-shifting on steep roads, roundabouts and city traffic and you’re going to be in panic mode from the word go.
2. Get a smaller car than you normally get in the U.S. The country roads, in particular are very narrow, often not wide enough for two cars to pass one another. A smaller car will make navigating and parking much easier.
3. Read up on U.K. road signage: “Give Way” is the U.S. equivalent of a Yield sign, for example. Expect to see a whole range of signs that you have never seen before.
4. Understand Roundabouts: remember to always look RIGHT, slow down, merge with traffic and follow directions for your route. Remember, the traffic on your right, already in the circle, has the right of way. Make sure that you are in the correct lane on your approach as busy roundabouts can have three or more. Busy roundabouts will have lights on them to control the flow of traffic and these behave like any other set of lights but be careful about being in the right lane as your chosen route may change to the left as you navigate the island. Many will guide you with arrows and words painted on the road and in some the route will be marked for you to follow. Keep your distance and don't let your concentration slack especially on these islands. Other drivers poor driving standards may mean that they change lanes at the last minute. Some will indicate to do this others won't. Also watch out for this when joining an island as not all make their intentions clear.
5. Parking: Look for yellow lines painted on the kerb. Double yellow means no waiting, while a single yellow may allow waiting at certain times. A double red one means no stopping. Look for signs indicating when waiting is permissible. No lines painted on the street/curb usually means free parking but increasingly cities, and especially London, zone these as Residents Parking Only. There will be signs on street lights or poles nearby explaining when you can and cannot park there. Most towns have car parks. You park your car, pay for your stay and then display the ticket on your dashboard. Avoid parking at bus stops which may be clearly marked in the road as this will attract a fixed penalty. Also respect signs on businesses and homes asking you not to park. It could be a business that has an entrance which is constantly in use.
6. Passing is called “overtaking" in the UK and can only be done on the right. On the motorway or dual carriageways remember lane discipline. On the motorway hogging the middle lane by slower moving traffic is an offence, and is seen as bad form. The middle and right hand lane are used for passing slower traffic.
7. MPH - The U.K. measures speed in miles per hour, the only country in Europe to do so.
8. No turning on a red light! In the U.S. most states allow a right turn on a red light after coming to a complete stop. Don’t even try it in the U.K. No such thing, although there may be a green filter arrow.
9. Whatever time you plan for your drive in the U.K. - double it. Unless you’re on a motorway, with no traffic, you can plan on slower driving times in the U.K. By the time you factor in narrow roads, roundabouts, traffic and looking for signs, you’re going to need to plan ahead for longer travel. Roads in the UK do not go dead straight like they do in North America and tend to be a bit bendy. This is especially true once you are off trunk roads. Be prepared to concentrate a bit more and allow extra time for your journey.
10. Know your road types - M roads are the biggies, the motorways, similar to U.S. interstate highways, mostly limited access, divided highways with multiple lanes. The A roads can be divided highways (dual carriageway) or simple two lane roads, with perhaps a small shoulder on each side. if not there will be lay bys should you need to stop. The B roads have no hard shoulder of any kind and are slower to use. Country lanes can be narrow and often have limited space for two cars to pass. They can be lined with thick hedges or shrubs or even stone fences/walls - not friendly should you need to suddenly veer left!
11. Some English roads have a lot of speed cameras and they may not always be obvious. While the cameras are not always in use, they may take a picture of the car and fine you £60. The first you know of this will be when the car hire company charge your credit card.
12. Take care near schools for children crossing the road. Signs are often displayed warning drivers that they are near a school and some have speed humps to slow drivers down. School buses are not that common especially in towns and if they are used are not universally orange so are difficult to spot as tend to be commercial buses or coaches hired to do the job. The rule about traffic stopping on both sides of a road when a school bus stops does not apply but drivers need to extra vigilant. All schools will have school crossing patrols near schools and main routes to schools. Dressed in bright yellow and with a sign to match they are often referred to as lollipop men/women. They have an absolute right to stop the traffic to let children cross. When they step out into the road holding their sign out in front of them all traffic should stop. Once the children have crossed safely they give a polite acknowledgment to drivers for their courtesy.
13. Think bike! In urban areas there are fair number of motor bikes and scooters - although not as many as you would find in Rome. Many bikers will weave in and out of the traffic and will ride to the front of a traffic queue if they can get through and this could be on either side or in between the lanes of a multi lane queue. When pulling out onto a main road take a few minutes to see if there is a bike approaching. Motorbikes always have their lights on to improve visibility. Many trunk roads popular with bikers have warning signs asking motorists to take extra care. Cyclists can use any road and may be hard to spot at night. Most will follow the same rules of the road as anyone else but be prepared for them to pop up anywhere.