Driving in the UK – it ain’t easy. But if you are schooled up on a few basics it ain’t hard either. The towns and cities pose the greater challenge. Out on the open road it’s fairly easy going.
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time driving in Britain and here are 8 things I learned the hard way that will make driving in the UK a lot easier.
1: Remember – they drive on the left
First things first. For Americans and others who drive on the right hand side of the road you had better quickly get your head around the new world order: From now on the left side is the right side and the right side is the wrong side.
In many places you will see arrows painted on the road surface to remind you to get on the correct side.
By and large the passenger should have the green grass outside the side window and the driver should have the white dashes in the middle of the road.
It’s not all bad news – while the driver’s seat is on the right, the pedals are in the usual positions (from left to right: clutch, brake, accelerator), but the gear stick and park brake will be on your left hand side.
Driving on multi-lane roads. The local culture is to stay in the left lane unless passing another vehicle. Pull out, pass, pull over.
For a lousy £9.90 you can subscribe to my Great British Road Trips website and it will make planning and driving a tour of Britain a hellava lot easier.
I’ll lay out all the best (and even a few maybe-not-so) sightseeing options and I’ll give you easy-to-follow navigation notes to get you around with the least possible hassle and the fewest possible “debates” with the navigator.
And I’ll give you some serious money-saving tips when it comes to hiring a rental car.
2: These are the dangerous days
The second and third days are often the most dangerous days for drivers from right-side-of-the-road countries. On the first day you are conscious of the problem. By the second or third day you figure you have it sorted . . . and you switch your brain off.
What will help is for the navigator to also take responsibility for keeping to the correct side of the road.
3: British roads can be a nightmare
You can spend lost hours, lost tempers trying to find your way around. The British roading system is a tangle of A roads, B roads, country roads, little lanes that go nowhere at all.
The English poet, GK Chesterton summed it up rather well:
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.
Many roads in Britain are literally thousands of years old and were designed, if one could use that term, for horse-drawn chariots and coaches. The motorways are great, but you’ll be spending a lot of time on the B Roads and they can be, ummmm – “challenging”.
4: GPS and Google have only limited value
Getting from A to B can be majorly confusing. And, pleeeese, don’t get the idea that Google maps or a GPS will help. Google will often give you two options for the trip, neither of which is the best way to go, given that you are here to see the sights and soak up the local scenic atmosphere.
Sometimes they aren’t even the best route if you simply want to go from point to point as quickly as possible.
A survey by British motor company Jardine Motor Group revealed that 47% of drivers were sent in the wrong direction by their sat navs.
A GPS can be very useful for navigating your way into a city, especially if you are trying to reach a hotel. But on the open road, again it will not always select the best route for a holidaying visitor.
Some the instructions can be confusing. “In 200 yards turn left” is just fine . . . except when you get to the corner there are two roads off to the left.
That’s why, in my navigation notes on Great British Road Trips, I give you far more precise instructions and Expert Navigator Checkpoints to keep you on the right road.
Go to my website, Great British Road Trips, and sign up. For a miserly £6.90 (a special introductory deal for a very limited time – usually £9.90) you can get a well-researched sightseeing guide that will help you decide where to go, what to do, what to see – and most importantly, how to get there with least amount of stress and grief.
5: City street signs are just plain awful
One of the most frustrating things is the appallingly bad street signs in towns and cities. They have these itsy-bitsy street names high up on the side of a building, or down low near to the ground.
When you are slowing down in a stream of traffic looking for a hard-to-see street name, you will find that not all Brit drivers are as polite as they should be. Ignore them.
On the main highways the signage is much better but even then there can be problems.
One of the worst things I find is “missing” signs. For instance you approach a roundabout and you are looking for, and see, a sign that says “Heathrow Terminal 4”. You see it again as you join the roundabout. Then just when it is most critical – at the actual exit point . . . nothing.
I have at times made three or four circuits trying to determine exactly where I should leave a roundabout.
6: Navigating the roundabouts
Which raises the next problem for some visitors: Roundabouts. They are a great idea in keeping traffic moving but if you are not used to them they can be seriously stress-inducing. The rule is that traffic on the roundabout has right of way.
It is important to get your exit point right. A mistake can result in a lot of lost time. Looking for the Travelodge Heathrow one evening, I accidentally took the on-ramp to the M4 motorway. It was about 10 or 12 miles before I could get off and go back and the road was jammed with traffic. I lost over an hour.
Don’t hesitate to just keep going round and round a roundabout until you are satisfied that you have the right exit road. Not a bad idea to do a circuit or two and have an executive meeting with the navigator before reaching a consensus on where to exit.
However, do be aware of getting in the correct lane. The locals are most unappreciative of a driver making a sudden lane shift.
Having said that the locals can be a tetchy lot, they can also be surprisingly polite. Many of the streets and roads in Britain were formed in the days of horse and carriage – or chariots, for that matter. Width was not one of the design considerations. Thus you will frequently find yourself navigating very narrow streets. Parked cars don’t help, either. The result is that one-way traffic is the rule. Be considerate of oncoming traffic – if you have space to pull over, do so. You’ll usually get a friendly wave of thanks.
7: Speed limits – breaking them can be costly
The British traffic authorities are most particular about drivers obeying speed limits. The country is full of speed cameras and if you are over the posted limit you will get a ticket. What’s more the rental company will charge you around £30 to £40 administration costs for dealing with it.
And then you have to deal with the sort of situation in the picture. So what speed limit do you observe? Who knows?
8: Toll Roads
There are toll roads and bridges in some places. Be aware of them and pay up quickly. If the rental company gets the bill they will pay it and charge you the same said admin charge for doing so.
In the navigation notes on my website, Great British Road Trips, I will warn you when you are taking a toll road and give you the links to make payment.
Having said all that, don’t let me put you off a driving holiday in Britain. Once you get the hang of the local peculiarities you can sit back and enjoy seeing and being part of the gorgeously beautiful British countryside.
There’s no better way to experience the true Britain.
Let me make it something special. Go now to my website, Great British Road Trips, and sign up. It’ll only cost you £9.90 – the price of a pint of beer in a London pub. I’ll give you tips on saving serious money on renting a car, accommodation and sightseeing. All the stuff I’ve learned in 40 years of driving in Britain.