Driving on British Roads for Visitors - Tips and Information from a Brit
This country is small enough to be able to get to a new place every day without spending half of it driving, or stay in one area at a hotel, holiday cottage or guest house for several days and strike out each day in a different direction to explore the local area.
and insurance do I need to drive in the UK?
It is illegal to drive in the UK without a valid driving license and current insurance for the vehicle you are driving. If you have a full license in your own country, you'll probably be fine, check the license requirements here. If you are bringing your own vehicle you will probably need to inform your insurers and arrange extra cover if necessary, hire cars will usually have insurance included in the price, just check to make sure in case you want some optional extras.
How hard is
it to drive on the left?
We drive on the left in the UK and so the driving position is on the right of the car. If this is not the way it is in your own country it will probably seem more intimidating in prospect than it will be in reality. It takes getting used to of course, especially at first so take it slowly and on quiet roads if possible to get yourself oriented, you will most likely accommodate to this far more easily than you imagine. Remember to stay left and look right at junctions.
v manual gears (stick shift)
Most cars in the UK have manual or stick-shift gear changes. The cheapest hire cars will be manuals, if you are not used to these and can stretch to it I strongly suggest paying a little more to get an automatic. With so many unfamiliar things to get used to about driving in another country it's one thing you can do to make life simpler for yourself. Make sure it is clear you want an automatic when you book, manuals are the default choice in the UK
- narrow roads
Depending on where you come from, roads in the UK will possibly be narrower than you are used to. If you are from another European country, you will see little difference. If you are used to wide roads in Australia or the USA for instance, you will notice the difference and probably be somewhat alarmed at how close those cars coming in the opposite direction are to you at those speeds. It is something that you will adjust to but it can be helped by hiring a car somewhat smaller than you are used to driving at home.
The smallest tend to be the sort you drive when you first pass your test and can't afford anything better, they will be somewhat uncomfortable on long journeys, fidgety, noisy and underpowered. National Parks and other countryside areas will have more narrow roads. Motorways (highways) are wider, "A" roads will usually be wider than "B" roads.
Single track roads - In country areas you may come across roads that are wide enough for a single vehicle only. They are actually quite rare in terms of the total mileage and how much traffic they carry, though because they are found in the more picturesque regions you are more likely to visit, you may encounter one. In my everyday life in a village in rural Cambridgeshire I never drive down any single track roads, when I go to other regions of the UK in tourist mode however I do sometimes drive down them. There will probably be passing places, pull in to the left if the passing place is on your side, if you're not sure what to do, be polite and courteous and take your cue from the other driver, it might require backing up to the last passing place.
GPS / Satnav
Make finding your way about so much easier, and when you're approaching that roundabout trying to concentrate on what lane you need to be in, it is much more straightforward just knowing that you need the 3rd exit rather than reading the signs as you go round looking for the A383 and hoping you're in the right lane to turn off. Many hire car companies have satnav as an optional add-on at a cost that is as much if not more than buying a new unit if you have the car for a week. Amazon will ship some UK satnavs overseas, or they are available on ebay. They also show you the speed limit for the road you are on and will give warnings of automatic speed cameras coming up (legal in the UK).
These are very common in the UK, they are used to keep traffic flowing rather than having lights which can cause unnecessary stop-starts, they work well most of the time unless heavy traffic builds up. Small ones are easy, larger ones with multiple lanes need more attention to make sure you are in the right lane to leave at your required exit. Give way to traffic from the right when arriving and go around them clockwise, if you miss your turn off, go round again and take it next time round. Here's a useful guide to dealing with roundabouts, it's made for learner drivers in the UK preparing for their driving test.
The Highway Code
Information, advice, guidelines and mandatory rules for all road users in the UK, if you are unsure of anything related to using UK roads, the answer will probably be here. “Know Your Traffic Signs.” is an essential guide to signs and road markings in the UK, it is available online as a pdf file that you could download to look through on the trip here for instance. more here
- journey time
Like everywhere, roads in the UK are generally busy at morning and evening rush hours, on Friday and weekends to and from tourist areas and sometimes randomly at almost any other time! You might be able to get where you want in exactly the time it should take, but it isn't guaranteed, also having to use smaller roads as part of your journey can slow you down quite a bit. In particular don't arrive by plane and plan to drive hundreds of miles that day, take a shorter journey the first day and have a proper rest.
Drivers in the UK are taught to indicate when making a turn or changing lanes as part of the driving test, indicators should be used about 10-20 seconds before you make the movement as an indication of what you are going to do. Everyone might not do it all the time (take care at roundabouts) but most do and you should too. By the same token, maintain lane discipline and don't wander, straddle or cut across (again especially at roundabouts) without indicating first. If you find yourself in the wrong lane, slow up a little and indicate, this is generally seen as an "oops" manoeuvre and someone may well let you in, try to speed up and cut in and you may find yourself deliberately blocked out.
If someone flashes their headlights at you, it usually means "after you", they are slowing to allow you pull out at a junction or turn right for instance, <arse covering note - the law doesn't recognise this and if they crash into you, you will be probably found at fault> In the country and in smaller towns there is a lot of stopping and waiting to let others go if the situation is ambiguous, particularly if parked cars on the side of the road reduce it effectively to one lane. Other drivers will often wait and/or wave with their hand to allow you to go first, if this happens a raised hand or finger (no don't be rude, the other way round - besides we use two) is the correct acknowledgement. Don't forget to pass the courtesy on, but don't hold others up by doing so.
Don't go too
A tendency of drivers from countries that drive on the right side of the road is to stray too far over to the left when on British roads, combined with having narrower roads, this means that many accidents involving hire cars result in damage to the left side of the car, often with no other vehicle involved as the car gets a blow-out from hitting the curb too hard for instance or scraping a wheel. You can sometimes get extra tyre (tire) insurance when hiring a car for such eventualities. If there are white lines to your right, use them as a guide, a bit more than a wing mirrors distance from the line and you should be safe.
A Zebra crossing is a black and white striped area of the road to allow pedestrians to cross safely. It is an offence not to stop if a pedestrian is already on the crossing, including a single foot. It is courteous and expected that you will stop and allow pedestrians to cross if they are waiting at the side of the road for a break in the traffic. The zig-zag lines on either side are a no-parking zone.
A Pelican crossing has traffic lights and is button activated by waiting pedestrians, you don't need to stop until the lights turn red.
There is no standard way of paying for parking and allowed duration and charges vary enormously. More often than not you will need to do something when arriving at a car park, either paying in full or taking a ticket which you keep and present (usually to a machine) when leaving so the fee can be calculated. A pocket full of change is always the easiest way, debit cards are sometimes acceptable as is paying using your phone assuming you have one that is compatible. Cars have become larger in recent years, but parking spaces haven't so getting in can be a bit tight, I usually park a bit further away with spaces to the side if possible, a short extra walk helps to avoid door dings too. It's also a good idea to fold in your door mirrors in tight parking spaces and if parking on a busy road.
City centre multi-story car parks tend to be very tight, both in regards the parking space and in the corners you need to take to enter and leave them, if you are unsure of yourself in these, use a Park and Ride.
Park and Ride - Larger towns and cities often have a Park and Ride scheme whereby there is a large car park away from the centre where you park either for free or very cheaply. There is then a bus which will take you into the town or city centre which you usually have to pay for, though less than if you used a more central car park. Such schemes are often signposted on motorways and major roads as you approach and are far easier to get to than negotiating what can be a very busy and congested city centre to look for a space in an expensive car park after what may be a long queue to get in. They aren't usually available past about 6-7 pm. My local one at Cambridge has free for parking for up to 18 hours and £3 per person for the bus, this is on the high side for such schemes, Cambridge city centre car parks are about £2.50 an hour rising to £20 for 5 hours.
- stop, it's the law
If you involved in a RTA (Road Traffic Accident) remain at the scene for a reasonable time, long enough to give your vehicle registration number, insurance details and your name and address, and that of the vehicle owner (if different) to anyone with reasonable grounds to ask for those details, likewise others should pass those details on to you.
stop - don't go - at all!
It has come to my attention that some in some countries when a traffic light is on red, you can still turn left (or right), this is not allowed in the UK, if the light is red you stop and don't go anywhere until it changes to green.
Fuel - types
Many cars including hire cars in the UK are diesel rather than petrol, this is quite common in Europe but less so elsewhere, make sure you know which you have and make sure you pay attention when fuelling up so you don't put the wrong sort in. Fuel prices in Europe are high on a worldwide scale and the UK is no exception, so depending on where you come from be prepared to spend 2-3 times more per litre than you do at home. On the other hand European cars are generally more fuel efficient than in the USA for instance and distances in the UK to the next town, city or attraction are not so far, so your overall spend on fuel will probably be less than the cost of fuel implies that it might be.
The concept of jaywalking doesn't exist in the UK. Pedestrians have right of way but generally don't try it on as being right-but-dead is not as good as crossing the road sensibly and successfully. Note that the bar of "sensible" tends to fall in larger cities and when the pedestrian is in a hurry. In busy areas and with slow moving or stop-start traffic, people could be crossing the road almost anywhere - they generally don't, but it is a possibility.
There are many speed cameras across Britain, following a court case some years ago, they now have to be painted in bright easy-to-see colours so they act as a deterrent rather than a "gotcha". Satnavs will give a warning when a camera is nearby if they are kept up to date. There are also an increasing number of average speed cameras around, particularly on the motorways network, these calculate your average speed between two cameras so you can't slow down to the limit past a camera, speed to the next one, slow down again and get away with it.
and accident rates
It is worth considering that the road accident and death rates in the UK are amongst the lowest in the world, while the UK driving test is reckoned to be one of the more difficult ones to pass. Lane discipline, knowing what you should be doing by reading the road layout and being able to predict the behaviour of other road users as they are all following the same rules all contribute to the safety of Britain's roads. Narrow roads, a high density of traffic and the expense of motoring mean that it is taken seriously. Be aware that traffic police are more active than in some countries, so things you might get away with elsewhere may get you stopped by the police with further consequences for any bending of the law.
Roads here have a certain consistency of logic and layout that is not necessarily found elsewhere, so once you get used to driving and following road signs and markings, you will find that you are being subtly guided on your way.