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American vs British Driving - Your first time driving in the UK

Submitted by Joel on Mon, 04/25/2022 - 08:18

Your first time driving in the UK

So you’re coming to the UK and you want to know how difficult it will be to drive while here. First of all, welcome! As an American who has been driving in the UK since 2018, I’ll tell you, there’s a bit to know in order to drive safely, but don’t be afraid! If you read this blog post, you’ll be ahead of nearly every visitor to the country. It’s really not that bad, so don’t fret.

This post is for people that already drive comfortably. If you are a new driver, driving in a new country probably isn’t the best idea, but if you must drive, these tips will still help. I’m from the midwest, but I’ve driven all over the United States (and many other countries), so I’m pretty experienced in the differences you’ll discover while in the United Kingdom. 

Obviously, this isn’t going to cover everything, but it will definitely put you ahead of most drivers. That said, I feel like it’s important to note that, when in doubt, don’t force it. UK drivers are far more patient than anywhere else I’ve driven. So if you need help with something, roll down the window (or even get out of the car) and ask for help if you don’t understand what to do. But hopefully you will understand because you’ve read this post! So let’s get moving!

The Basics

Before we get on the road, I just want to put your mind to rest about some things I’ve heard over the years. First off, not every car has a manual transmission (stick shift) here. If you only drive automatics, that’s ok. Every year more cars go automatic and pretty much all EVs (Electric Vehicles) are automatics, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find what you need. Yes, manual transmissions are much more common, so it will take a bit of effort (and if someone you’re visiting says that they have a car, it will likely be manual, so definitely ask first!)

Next, you don’t need to have anything besides your driver’s license and passport. You don’t need an International Driver’s Permit in the UK (mostly because all it really does is provide a translation of your US license into local languages). Your US license allows you to drive in the UK for a full year, and since your passport only allows you to be in the country for six months, that should be plenty of time! If you’re moving to the UK, you should definitely start the process of getting your UK license as soon as you can, as the process can be a long one, but I’ll cover that in a future post. 

Obvious Differences

On The Other Side
Yeah, the steering wheel is on the other side of the car and you drive on the other side of the road. It’s weird, but you’ll quickly get used to it. You’ll probably go to the wrong side of the car for pretty much the entire trip, but everyone does that, so don’t worry about it. Your best bet is to wait for a car to pass by and get behind it. This solves many problems with figuring out the side of the road and how fast you’re supposed to go, but sometimes that just isn’t an option. It would be nice to be able to use parked cars as a visual cue to remember which side you’re supposed to drive on, but parked cars are often going either way, so just remind yourself over and over as you’re driving, “On the left. On the left.” It’s probably the toughest when turning at intersections, so just keep reminding yourself, “Stay on the left.” If you have a passenger, have them remind you, too. If you’re turning, they should just nicely remind you to stay on the left so that way they aren’t screaming, “WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD!!” If you do find yourself going the wrong way, just pull over to the side of the road and get onto the correct side when it’s safe. Remember, people often park on either side of the road (and in weird places) and they will go around you as best they can. Much better than causing an accident!

Speed Limits
Once you’ve figured out which side of the road you’re supposed to drive on, the next hurdle to overcome is how fast you should go. Most speed limits are NOT specifically posted. Instead they just have a sign that means “Return to National Speed Limit for the Area” (see pic below). That’s right, you have to ‘just know’ what the speed limit is much of the time. Yikes! So here are the THREE national speed limits: 30mph in town (known as a built-up area which means there are street lights), 60mph on two way roads (called a single carriageway), and 70mph on the highways (called dual carriageways). 

Now this doesn’t mean that there are never speeds posted. There might be deviations posted, but they will be explicit, reading “20mph” or just “20” with a red circle around it (red meaning don’t exceed. A blue circle means a minimum, but those are more rare). When those end, you’ll see a sign that shows you can return to the national speed limit, as above (it looks like a white circle with a black line through it). You can get a sticker for your car dashboard if you’re worried you can’t remember. 

Return to National Limit sign. Click for all example road signs from gov.uk

Finally, the last thing to know about the speed limit is that it is considered a maximum, not a goal. So on those winding country roads, the limit is 60mph, but you’ll often need to go much slower. In the US, if you’re driving in the country and a turn is coming up, the speed limit will often drop from 55mph to 45mph. In the UK, you just need to realise that it’s not safe to go 60mph around a curve. So only go 60mph on the straight roads and slow down to as slow as 35mph as needed (which will be quite often). Don’t expect to be able to keep up with locals. They know the roads and often go much faster than my comfortable speed (and I’m considered quite the speeder by those that know me).  

In the UK and in most of Europe they want the environment to be your speed limit. You'll be driving in a 30mph zone and suddenly there will be an area that just narrows for no reason. One side will have a yield and the other will have the right of way. This is meant to slow down drivers and make them pay attention to their surroundings. You can NOT just zone out in Europe while driving because you believe that you have the right of way! Curvy roads, random lanes ending, parked cars in your lane, and much more FORCE YOU to pay attention. This is not something that most Americans are used to. Yes, good drivers pay attention, but in Europe and the UK they will add difficulties just to make sure you're paying attention!

Motorcycles and Bicycles
In the United States, motorcycles and bicycles are considered moving vehicles and must obey the same rules of the road as cars (for the most part). Not so in the UK. I don’t have a motorcycle license, so I don’t know all the rules for motorcycles, but interacting with them and talking to people with a motorcycle license has shown some major differences. The biggest difference to me is that motorcycles often do a maneuver called ‘filtering’ where they can ‘split lanes’. In other words, they can pass between two cars that are next to each other. This applies at just about any time, so if you’re passing another car on a highway, a motorcycle could still go between you and the car. If you’re stopped at a traffic light, a motorcycle could be passing by you. 

The rules for bicycles are also quite a bit different. For the most part, bicyclists always have the right of way. They usually do a pretty good job of treating traffic with respect, but I’ve personally encountered some pretty brazen cyclists that expect the traffic to just part as if they had total awareness of the rider’s intentions. Because of this, it’s important to check your mirrors at all intersections. Watch for bikes expecting you to give them the right of way when turning especially at lights. 

Sharing Your Lane
In most of the United States, the lane you’re driving in is pretty much always going to be solely for traffic going in the same direction as you are. In the United Kingdom, though, that is NOT the case. Narrow roads that are barely wide enough for one car are often considered two way roads. And most two lane roads allow cars to park such that you still must share your lane with oncoming traffic. I was taught to always look for your ‘outs’ (places to go in case trouble happens), and in most places there just aren’t any.

This means that you must watch the road ahead for oncoming cars at all times. At first, when I was driving with no obstacles in my lane, I’d just watch for immediate dangers, but I soon learned that I have to look far ahead in case a row of parked cars has forced the oncoming traffic to pass in my lane. Typically, if your lane is clear, you get the right of way with the other side waiting for the traffic to pass in order to go around the parked cars. However, once a car has committed to passing, you need to allow them to get by you. It’s a bit of a dance without clear rules besides “use your best judgment”. 

Narrow country roads are a different monster entirely, though. All country roads will have areas that widen up for a car to get over and let others pass. Again, you have to watch ahead for cars coming and if you see one of these areas, duck into it to let them pass. What often happens, though, is both sides just stop to see what the other will do. It’s like a game of chicken, except you both are looking to get out of the way, but there’s nowhere to go. Someone needs to back up to find one of the spots to move into, which is why it’s so important to watch for them at all times. If yours is closer, back up and get out of the way. Flash your lights to let them know that you’re getting out of the way. If they flash theirs, it means they’re going to get out of your way. When in doubt, the person at lower elevation must reverse to avoid the other car from having to reverse uphill. We’ve seen quite a few situations that we call ‘Welsh standoffs’ that require quite a bit of coordination to clear up, though. Just be patient and follow their lead and just understand that this isn’t the first time it’s happened, so stay calm and do your best!

Roundabouts
These are becoming more common in the US, so hopefully this won’t be quite such a foreign experience as it once was. Roundabouts are much more efficient for traffic (assuming everyone understands how to navigate them). Hopefully you’re using GPS that tells you which exit you need, but the signs do a pretty good job of showing you where you need to go. For larger roundabouts, they often paint the road that your lane eventually turns into on the lane itself, so watch for that. 

Your turn signals are important with roundabouts. Watch theirs and use yours. If you’re approaching a roundabout and you plan to take the first exit, turn on your left turn signal. If you’re going straight through, don’t use the indicator. If you’re going to the right, turn on your right turn signal (but still go LEFT into the roundabout! Just keep going around until you find your exit.) The left lane is for going left, right lane for going right, etc. Going right is the most difficult, as you start by signaling right, then enter the roundabout, then when your exit is next (as you’re passing the exit before yours), you turn on the left signal and get into the lane you need to be in. It’s a bit of a dance, to be certain, but it’s pretty logical, so just do your best.

My best advice is to be prepared, be polite, and be patient. Be prepared to change lanes, to signal, to stop if someone cuts you off, to go when you see an opening… just BE PREPARED! British drivers are typically pretty patient, so just do your best and apologize when you mess up. Politeness never cost a penny!

Here is a sign giving you a TON of info on the upcoming roundabout:

Example roundabout sign. Click for all example road signs from gov.uk

So you're coming from the bottom part. Your first exit would be to 'Nutfield'. The second exit will put you on A105 which EVENTUALLY leads to M14 (which is why it's in the parenthesis). That empty spot on the far right only means that when you enter the roundabout you'll go LEFT. You aren't forced to exit at Walsham because of a huge green barrier. You can go around and around until you figure out which exit you need (although people might get irritated with you expecting you to eventually get over). There's much more info in that single sign, but that's all you need to know for now.

Not-So-Obvious Differences

While the above differences are something everyone talks about and gets ready for, this next section is about things that are important, but no one seems to discuss. Being from Iowa, I was taught a certain way and I have found that not every area is exactly the same in the USA, but here are some of the things that differed from my experiences. 

Pedestrians and Crosswalks
There are many types of crosswalks in the UK, but most of them have signals and are pretty easy to understand. If the light is red, you stop, etc. There are crosswalks, though, with flashing yellow lights (not stop lights, but more like street lights - see pic below) that have different rules. In this case, the pedestrians have the right of way. Like, if a pedestrian is on the curb, you must stop for them and let them cross. When we were in London we thought drivers were just incredibly polite because even on major roads, they would stop to let us cross. It turns out, that’s the law! So pedestrians might not even look before crossing, as it is your job to stop for them. And, obviously, if someone is ever in the street, you should stop for them anyway, regardless of who has the right of way (hint - it’s always the pedestrian!)

A pedestrian crosses while cars patiently wait.

Signaling
I was taught to signal your intentions first, then check to make sure it’s safe, then if it is, go for it. The signal is about intent, not immediate action. Want to pass someone? Turn on the signal, look for cars, wait for them to clear up, when there’s a space, move into the space. But for British drivers, the turn signal means action is coming! Check the mirrors first and if you believe it’s safe, THEN turn on the signal (which they call an indicator) and then finish the maneuver. MSM (mirror, signal, maneuver) is repeated often by drivers. So if you turn on that signal early to show your intentions, you can really freak out your fellow drivers! 

Turning at an intersection is obviously a bit different. Give plenty of notice to drivers behind you. Taking an exit is also signaled about 200yds before the exit. So really, this is mostly about doing something that isn’t so obvious, like changing lanes or pulling out from your parking spot. Don’t turn your signal on unless you’re ready to go! 

Positioning
In the US, as mentioned above, you pretty much have lanes for whatever you plan to do. If you’re turning, you either go into the turn lane or you are blocking the lane waiting to turn. Those are pretty much the only options. Your lane is only for your direction of traffic and if someone is behind you, they pretty much just wait for you to turn. Some might go on the shoulder to get around you, but most people just wait.

In the UK, though, lanes are shared, so your position WITHIN THE LANE is important, too. If you’re turning and there’s enough room for other cars to get by, you should get near to the edge of the lane to let other cars undertake you (pass on the non-passing side of the road, which is the left side if you’re making a right turn). And because of this, you need to watch for cars undertaking.

Example: You are turning right (which is usually across traffic in the UK) on a road with one lane of cross traffic and a car approaches wanting to also turn right. Typically, both cars can safely go simultaneously, but in the UK you have to be careful because someone could be passing and going straight. Were you to pull in front of them, the accident would be your fault! So be careful and watch for cars undertaking (going straight) at intersections!

There’s More!

That covers most everything a visitor needs to get by on British roads, but there’s a lot more to know if you plan on trying to get a UK license. The next blog post will go through all the other rules of the road that you need to know, plus what to expect and what you need to prepare for the test itself. Spoiler alert: if you follow the next post, you likely won’t need to take lessons!

 

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