Tips for Driving in the United Kingdom
The big cities are great, but you can’t truly experience a culture or a place without getting out into the countryside. This is especially true of London compared to the rest of England, or the whole of the UK. To do that, it is best to rent a car. Driving in the UK, however, is vastly different due to one major complication: driving on the left side of the road, while sitting on the right side of the car. Complicating things further are the narrow country roads with ancient stone walls or hedges creeping ever closer, and an oncoming tour bus taking up two-thirds of the road. What do you do? Here are a few tips to help you hit the road confidently. Follow these, and you’ll be driving like a local in no time.
It is an unconscious act we do every time we approach an intersection, whether in a vehicle or on foot: we look to our left for oncoming traffic. That’s because this is the direction in which any traffic nearest to us would be coming from (unless you’re near a one-way street, but that isn’t the majority of the time, so just follow along). In the UK, this is reversed. Vehicles drive on the left side of the road, which means as you approach an intersection, whether in a vehicle yourself or on foot, traffic closest to you will be approaching from your right. If you look left, see no cars, and think you are safe to move forward, you may find yourself in a hospital or worse due to a car you never saw coming from your right. So stop completely, and look right!
Don’t Drive in the City
Learning to drive on the left side of the road, while sitting on the right side of the car, is disorienting enough. There is no need to exponentially overcomplicate matters by trying to learn while in a high congested, high stress area. Drivers in cities across the world are notorious for being more aggressive too, which simply compounds the stressors already present. If you’re going to drive in the UK, stick to the countryside.
Never pass on the left
When driving in the right lane on a freeway, the slowest traffic is advised to stay in the right-most lane. In the UK, as driving occurs in the left lane, slower traffic is likewise kept in the left-most lane. If you want to pass, or overtake, a slower vehicle, you navigate to the right lane to pass slower traffic on the left. In the United States, you will often see cars passing other vehicles in either the right or left lanes. In the UK, passing on the right is strictly prohibited, unless traffic is heavy and you are following the flow of traffic.
Left on Red? Never
One of the greatest inventions coming from the United States is the ability to turn right from a red light. This keeps traffic moving, and if you plan your route correctly, can even cut significant time off of your travels. In the UK, a right turn on red would translate to a left turn on red, as you would already be in the left lane, and the direction of traffic in the closest lane to you at an intersection would be left as well. However, left turns on red lights are not allowed in the UK. Sorry!
You know them as traffic circles. Roundabouts are meant to increase the flow of traffic through an intersection, as they simply need to give way, or yield, to any traffic already in the roundabout. You likely don’t see many of these in your home country, but in the UK they are quite prevalent. You’ll become a pro at navigating them by the end of your trip, but a few tips to get you started:
Pick your lane prior to entering. Typically, a roundabout will have multiple exits, and prior to entering you will find signs that will guide you in to a specific lane in order to exit towards your desired destination. Simply place yourself in the desired lane, and follow the lane through the roundabout.
Give way to traffic from the right (already in the roundabout). A reminder of our first tip, make sure you look to your right when approaching the roundabout, as this is where traffic will be coming from. If you look left and don’t see any cars, you may pull into the roundabout to a terrible surprise of a collision from your right.
Use your hands for driving, and nothing else
This shouldn’t need to be said, but don’t have any other distractions while driving. Do not attempt to eat or drink, and most importantly of all, do not use your cell phone. Not only is it illegal, it’s just stupid.
Watch out for drifting
Driving on the left side of the road isn’t the only major change you have to get accustomed to. Your driving position is now on the right side of the car. This means all of the years you’ve spent keeping a car in the right lane has caused you to forget that when you drive back home you are constantly making small adjustments to keep the car close to the centerline. Driving in the left lane, you will find that this unconscious tendency will now cause you to drift towards the left shoulder, and your passengers will constantly cry out for you to stop drifting off of the road.
Take your time and be mindful!
Think about this: would you rather arrive 10-15 minutes later than planned to your destination, and perhaps slightly delay other motorists the same amount, or cause an accident endangering your own life as well as others? Of course you’d prefer the delay. So slow down, give yourself and others plenty of patience and grace, and be safe. This advice goes for driving at home too, not just in the UK!
Finally, be mindful. You’ll find that you have to give a significantly higher amount of your attention to driving than you ever do back home. This is a scary thought, because it must mean you’re a terribly absentminded driver back home, but if you can begin your driving in the UK with the expectation that it will require your full attention, you will approach driving the proper respect it deservers. Plan ahead. Think through each step and decision prior to acting on it. And you’ll be a much safer, and calmer, driver for it.