> SlowTrav > United Kingdom & Ireland > Instructions for Visitors

Driving in the United Kingdom

Pauline Kenny; Updated by Susan (aka Panda)

In 1992, when we picked up a rental car in Ireland, there was a note in the car with the following written in large type: "Drive on the left". Very good advice. But really, driving in England is easy - "easy, peasy." You just have to master driving on the left and get used to narrow roads. The drivers in England are very forgiving and courteous and this makes all the difference. You don't feel rushed. You can slow down on the narrow parts of the road without annoying the drivers behind you. Other drivers will pull over to let you pass more easily.

Steve at the right side wheel of our UK car rental

Steve on the driver side - on the right side.

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Drive on the Left

DRIVE ON THE LEFT! Yes, in the UK and Ireland they drive on the "wrong side" of the road (or as they call it "the correct side"). The whole car is set up differently than we are used to in North America. The driver sits on the right. You shift gears with your left hand, instead of your right. But, the accelerator and brake pedals (and clutch for manual transmission cars) are in the same position, so that is not confusing (or is it?).

If you are driving on the left for the first time, it is worth it to pay a bit more and get an automatic drive car. That way you do not have to worry about shifting with your left hand. When you pick up your car, try to do some practice driving. Maybe on a Sunday in a small town or a parking lot (just like you did when you first learned to drive).

Steve always drives in the UK and Ireland (while I do most of the driving at home in the US) because he has driven there many times and is used to it now. It took a couple of trips to get fully used to it, but now driving on the left is almost as natural as driving on the right.

Don't forget the passenger. It feels strange sitting on the left but not driving! (But soon your mind is taken off that when you start to worry about how close the left side of the car is to the stone walls and parked cars.)

Types of Roadways

There are four main types of roads:

  • M roads (motorways, like US freeways), shown in blue on the AA Road Atlas. All the signs for motorways are also blue. These are not toll roads – the only exception is the 27 mile M6 Toll Road past Birmingham in the Midlands, which by passes a notoriously congested section of the normal M6. You will find rest stops along the motorways, with restrooms, shops and restaurants.
  • A roads, shown in red on the AA Road Atlas, these are fast moving roads through the countryside and towns. Sometimes they are a single lane in each direction, sometimes two lanes in each direction. On some of the major A roads, you will find rest stops, just like on the motorways.
  • B roads, shown in yellow on the AA Road Atlas, these are secondary roads but are still fast moving.
  • Farm roads, shown in white on the AA Road Atlas, these are narrow farm lanes. These roads are paved. Sometimes they are wide enough for a car in each direction; sometimes they are only wide enough for one car and pullouts allow cars to pass each other. This is described in more detail below.

Roundabouts (Traffic Circles)

You will encounter roundabouts frequently when driving in the countryside. They are on minor roads and on major roads. They are even used for entrances onto the Motorways (the M roads). Usually they handle the situation where two roads intersect. Instead of having stop signs or traffic lights, there is a roundabout. Once you get used to them, you will realize that they work well and let the traffic flow.

On some of the larger or busier roundabouts, you may also get traffic lights at the entrance or part of the way round – some of these lights only operate at peak hours.

Road Signs for Roundabouts

Roundabouts are well signed. As you approach, a few hundred yards from the roundabout, there will be a large traffic sign showing where each exit from the roundabout goes. This will be shown by highway route numbers and the larger town destinations for the highway. After this first sign, there is usually a smaller sign for the same roundabout, but showing smaller towns that each exit goes to. Once you are in the roundabout, each exit is clearly marked showing both the major and minor towns

Sign showing roundabout

First sign shows major town destinations and highway numbers for each turn.
Reminder: the car in this photo is moving towards you!

The sign above is posted on the road well before the roundabout. It clearly shows which towns are in each direction. You enter the roundabout from the road at the bottom of the sign (6 o'clock). Some roundabouts have more exits and are not as straight forward as this one.

If these roads had been major roads (A roads), the sign would have been in green to indicate this. Green signs show roundabouts on A roads; white signs for B roads. These photos were taken on smaller roads (because it was easier for me to walk back along the road to take the photo).

Sign showing roundabout

Second sign shows minor town destinations for each turn.

The sign above is posted on the road after the major sign (and on the other shoulder!). It shows the smaller towns for each exit. If the first roundabout sign was green (for A roads), the second sign will be white and in the roundabout format. In this case the first sign was white, so a simple direction sign like this follows.

This duplication of signs is a great help when navigating. Figure out the major town in the direction you are going and watch for it on the signs. But you will be given a second chance to see if your town is listed in the second sign. Watching the road signs is the best way to navigate.

Entering the Roundabout

Basic Rule: Look to the right for oncoming traffic, then drive clockwise in the roundabout (exits are on the left).

As you enter the roundabout, traffic coming from your right has right of way. This means that traffic streaming into the roundabout from the entrance to your right will keep coming as long as no one is coming from their right. These cars may not even slow down as they enter the roundabout, because they have the right of way. You must stop and wait until there is a break in traffic. Watch out for other traffic in the roundabout.

Typical roundabout

Car entering roundabout. No traffic coming from the right.

The roundabout in the photo above has a big grass circle in the middle. They are not always like this. Sometimes it is just a circle painted on the pavement.

The Double Roundabout

The double roundabout is usually found in towns where several streets come together. Remember to give way to traffic coming from the right in both roundabouts.

Sign showing double roundabout

Sign showing a double roundabout

In the sign above you can see that the main flow of traffic is using the roundabout to go straight (with a slight turn to the left).

Great "movie" that shows how a roundabout works.

See Resources below for links to the Magic Roundabout in Swindon (five "mini roundabouts") and in Hemel Hempstead (bi-directional roundabout).

How to Navigate the Course of Parked Cars in a Village or Town

The villages and towns in the countryside were built long ago, before cars, and have very narrow roads. Many houses have no private parking, so people park on the street. You can park on the street anywhere that is not marked with double yellow lines.

These parked cars make you weave your way through a village, going back and forth from the middle of the road, to your lane. Winchcombe, where we spent a month in September 2004, is a prime example of this. A B road goes through the village. As you approach the village the speed limit goes from 50mph to 30mph (many big signs warn you of the speed change). In the village you are on the main street that is about a mile long and is lined with beautiful row houses, some in Cotswold stone, others timbered (the town is beautiful). This road is wide enough for two cars, going in opposite directions, to pass each other. But cars are parked along one side or the other (this changes every few blocks), making the road one car wide in many spots.

If the car is parked on your side of the road, you have to judge if two cars can fit on what remains of the road. If not, then you must wait until the traffic is clear (giving way to oncoming traffic). Sometimes an approaching driver will pull over to give way to you and may flash their lights to tell you to proceed.

This all makes it slow going through many villages, but it also keeps the traffic slow, which is good for the pedestrians.

How to Navigate the Very Narrow Country Lanes

Some of the country lanes are only wide enough for one car, but there are frequent pullouts (called "laybys") where one car can pull over and let the other car pass. On the AA Road Atlas, these country lanes are shown as white roads. The countryside is full of these lanes. No white dividing line is painted on these roads; these lines are only painted when the road is wide enough for two cars.

The narrow lanes are easy to drive, just pay attention to what is ahead of you and don't drive fast when you cannot see far ahead. These roads are not very busy. Usually you will see an approaching car in the distance and whichever one of you reaches a pullout first will pull over to let the other car pass. If you both meet, head to head on the road, one person will reverse to the closest pullout.

Speed Limits and Speed Cameras

There is an initiative in the UK to get drivers to slow down. They are using speed cameras to do this, but in a way that is a bit different. The idea is to get people to drive within the limit, not to catch and fine speeders. Everyone knows where the speed cameras are. There are road signs indicating the presence of cameras. The camera must be visible from 60 meters away. You will see the camera at the side of the road (with a big yellow board behind it) and short parallel lines across the lane indicate that there is a camera.

Long term road works over a long stretch (usually on motorways) now have a different kind of camera which measures ‘Average Speed’ (usually 50mph). A gantry above or to the side of the motorway has a camera for each lane, which records you entering the restricted area and records you leaving it (a few miles further on). If you have taken a shorter time than the the calculation for 50mph you (or you via your rental company) will get a fine and they really do enforce this.

Speed limits are clearly posted. Usually they are 30mph in villages or towns, 50mph outside of town, and 70mph on the motorways.

Parking

Do not park along the curb on a double yellow line. With a single yellow line, you may be able to park but look for a sign listing the times you can park. If there is no line, usually you can park. A red line, only to be found on busy main routes, means no parking or stopping at any time.

You will find "Pay and Display" parking lots in most villages. These are the best place to park. They are large lots, usually just a couple of blocks from the town center, frequently with public restrooms. The parking lots are clearly marked as "Pay and Display". Find the payment machine, read how much parking costs and put in your coins (keep extra one pound coins for just this purpose). The time the parking expires is printed on a ticket and you place this on your car dash.

Note: Some parking machines ask you to enter your car license plate number before you purchase your ticket. This is to prevent you from giving someone your ticket when you leave (so they can use your unused time). Some machines want you to enter your whole license number, but others ask for the digits only. If your license has three digits, enter them. If only two, enter a zero then the two digits (the instructions explain this). All UK licenses have 2 or 3 digits in the license number.

In recognition of the narrowness of some roads, there may be parking permitted with one wheel on the pavement. Only do this when there is a sign (showing a slightly drunken looking car) telling you to do so but if you do choose to park there, you must do it otherwise you may cause an obstruction.

Unless you are in a one way road or there is a sign specifically banning it, there is no requirement to park facing the same direction as the traffic

Crossing the Road (as a Pedestrian)

LOOK TO THE RIGHT! We are used to looking left before crossing a road, but you have to train yourself to look right first. Many pedestrian crossing have "Look Right" painted on the roadway. Drivers in the UK are very good with pedestrian crossings. If you are at the crossing, they will stop to let you cross.

Walking Along Roads

WALK ON THE RIGHT! Another very important thing to remember. Always walk on the side of the oncoming traffic. When walking along busy narrow roads, you want to see what is coming towards you.

Getting Gas (Petrol Stations)

Petrol Stations (gas stations) in England are pretty much the same as in North America. Pull up to a pump, select unleaded or diesel, pump the gas yourself, take note of the number on your pump, then go inside and pay the cashier. Some Pay at Pump signs indicate the option to pay by card without going to the cashier.

Prices in May 2010:
Prices ranged from £1.19 to £1.24 per litre for unleaded with diesel about 1p more.

International Driver Permit (IDP)

From the information I can find on government websites, you do not need an IDP to drive in the United Kingdom. (An IDP is an official translation of your driver's license, usually done at the AAA.)

www.direct.gov.uk/Motoring/: This government page says that a visitor to Great Britain can drive for 12 months on their driver's license from another country.

Link to IDP information on the AAA website: The AAA website indicates that you need an IDP for the United Kingdom, but I don't think it is required by law. The IDP is a translation of your driver's license (bring your actual license too). It is good for one year.

Resources

Book: The Highway Code, revised 2010, Department for Transport.
For pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists, and drivers. Pick up this book in England (£2.50) for the road rules and traffic signs. Also online: www.direct.gov.uk/en/TravelAndTransport/Highwaycode/index.htm

www.answers.com/topic/motorway/: Answers.com, Motorways. Good description of UK motorways.

www.m6toll.co.uk: M6 toll road

Slow Travel Photos: Photos of parking lots, Pay and Display signs, streets signs, etc.

Roundabouts

Great "movie" that shows how a roundabout works

www.swindonweb.com/life/lifemagi0.htm: The Magic Roundabout in Swindon, five "mini roundabouts"

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/: Wikipedia, Magic Roundabout in Swindon, five "mini roundabouts"

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/: Wikipedia, Magic Roundabout in Hemel Hempstead, a bi-directional roundabout

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