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The most famous aspect of driving in the United Kingdom, for most foreign visitors at least, is of course that the British drive on "the wrong side" of the road - i.e. on the left hand lane, and the driver sits on the right hand side of the car. It takes some time to "reprogram" the mind to think in the opposite sense at junctions and on roundabouts and motorways, so the main thing is not to drop your guard 2 or 3 days into your visit, as this is when most accidents involving foreign drivers happen. You can also do some online practice before you arrive to familiarise yourself with driving in the UK, try some practice learner driver theory tests. If you are from the USA or Canada - bear in mind that most cars are manual transmission which can further complicate matters - your car rental company will give you a "stick shifter" unless you specifically ask for an automatic when you make a reservation.
1. Speed Limits
Most speed limits are indicated by black numerals on a circular white sign with a red border. The exception is the National Speed Limit, a kind of "default" speed limit, indicated by a plain white circular sign with a black diagonal stripe. Speed limits signs and distance signs in the UK are always indicated in miles (5 miles = 8 kilometres).
The National Speed Limit (NSL) for cars and motorcycles is 60mph (=97km/h) on single-carriageway roads and 70mph (=112km/h) on dual-carriageways and motorways.
Built-up areas have a standard 30mph (=48km/h) limit in force, though in some areas (near schools, housing estates etc), it drops to 20mph. In areas with less immediate danger, this rises to 40mph (=64km/h) or even 50mph (=80km/h). Most deviations from the normal 30mph are very well-signed, especially the 20mph zones, which are usually liberally sprinkled with speed-bumps and other "traffic calming" measures. The 30 mph limit applies to all traffic on all roads in England and Wales (only Class C and unclassified roads in Scotland) with street lighting unless signs show otherwise.
Breaking the speed limit usually incurs a fine (although if the speed was only slightly above the limit, some forces offer the option of a speed awareness course - along with a fee) and penalty points on a licence. Stationary speed cameras and mobile police radar traps and average speed camera are used to catch offenders, If you are on unfamiliar territory, driving a car with the controls on the "wrong" side, on the "wrong" side of the road, you are already a potential hazard. Don't add to it by speeding.
That said, Britain has a culture of speeding. Popular beliefs are that "10% over the limit is legal" (which it's officially not, but in practice, is, in view of the need to allow for speedometer and detection equipment error) and that "speed limits are there for cars without such good brakes as mine!" (total drivel). On a practical level, this means that you should avoid driving too much slower than the limit on roads with higher speed limits.
2. Driving on a Motorway (Freeway)
Motorways MUST NOT be used by pedestrians, holders of provisional motorcycle or car licences, riders of motorcycles under 50cc, cyclists, horse riders etc.
In the UK motorists are only allowed to pass on one side, this being the right. Passing on the left at speed is very hazardous and you could be prosecuted for dangerous driving. However, when all three lines of traffic are moving slowly because of weight of traffic those to your left may well be going faster. You should always drive in the left-hand lane if the road ahead is clear.
You MUST NOT drive faster than 70mph or the maximum limit permitted for your vehicle. On motorways, many people cruise at 75 or 80mph, and the occasional Mercedes or BMW may pass at 100mph plus. Keeping your speed at or close to the limit will help reduce congestion, though it does mean you need to pay more attention to the road and other users. The police use marked and unmarked police cars - these, plus speed cameras, mean that speeding can result in a fixed penalty or even prosecution for serious offenders.
If you are overtaking a number of slower moving vehicles, it may be safer to remain in the centre or outer lanes until the manoeuvre is completed rather than continually changing lanes. Return to the left-hand lane once you have overtaken all the vehicles or if you are delaying traffic behind you.
Slow moving or speed restricted vehicles should always remain in the left-hand lane of the carriageway unless overtaking, and may not use the right hand lane at all. You MUST NOT drive on the hard shoulder (this is the lane usually found on the extreme left, intended for breakdowns and fast access by the emergency services) except in an emergency or if directed to do so by signs.
Sometimes traffic is required to merge from three lanes into two or even one! While it may be tempting to zoom up the empty lane to the front of the queue, do remember that the British reserve a special circle of hell for queue-jumpers and may simply refuse to let you in, sometimes accompanied by certain hand signals (this applies universally; not just on the road). Merge as soon as you can, unless dangerous to do so.
When exiting a motorway the "off-ramp" is called a slip road. Expect not only to slow down, but to stop and give way to traffic at the end of the lane.
Motorway junctions are, in general, numbered sequentially, and the junction number bears no relation to the distance between them.
3. Right on Red? Never! Left on Red? Nope!
There is no UK equivalent of "Right on Red" (this would be "Left on Red"). Always stop and wait for the light. At some traffic lights there may be a green filter arrow. This indicates a filter lane only. Do not enter that lane unless you want to go in the direction of the arrow. You may proceed in the direction of the green arrow when it, or the full green light shows. Give other traffic, especially cyclists, time and room to move into the correct lane.
Generally, do not proceed on amber or red. If you are going too fast to make a safe stop when lights go from green to amber, do not slap on the brakes unless you're about to hit something. It is generally safer to proceed than come to a halt in the middle of a junction when cars are bearing down on you from either side! It is recommended practice when approaching traffic lights to slow down slightly just in case the lights should change. Traffic lights run in the sequence: RED - RED&AMBER - GREEN - AMBER - RED. At busy junctions, drivers nowadays tend not to stop at the amber signal, even if they could easily do so, but this is a driving offence really: amber means "stop".
Some traffic lights are used for pedestrians, with a green and red man to symbolise Walk/Don't Walk. These are operated by the push buttons on or near the light stanchions. Some traffic lights are specifically for pedestrians, and are called pelican crossings. These have a modified sequence to the normal traffic lights. The red and green lights are as normal (stop/go), whereas a flashing amber means drivers must give priority to pedestrians - just before the flashing amber appears to the drivers, a flashing green man appears on the pedestrian set, which means those pedestrians on the road should continue, but those approaching the crossing should stop, and press the button again to start the sequence again. If the road is clear with the amber lights flashing, drivers may proceed with caution.
Known as "traffic circles" in those few places in the US where they are seen, roundabouts actually make some junctions a lot easier by keeping traffic moving. The two key things to remember are: Get in lane and stay there and give way to the right (traffic on the roundabout).
Approaching a roundabout, particularly a major one, there will be some form of sign displaying the various destinations and the lanes. Simply arrange yourself in the correct lane as soon as you are able, indicating as you approach the roundabout if you will be turning right or left. Don't forget to indicate left as you leave the roundabout, as it will allow cars entering the roundabout at the exit to know your intentions. Although many drivers don't indicate properly, especially on smaller mini-roundabouts, it is safer to do so. If you're leaving at the first exits, stay in the left-hand lane, middle exits, middle lane (if only two lanes round the roundabout, stay in the left-hand lane for middle exits), last exits, right-hand lane, remembering to indicate left, and pulling out to the left-hand lane when nearing your exit.
At some roundabouts the lanes on the roundabout itself are explicitly marked, at others the road is wide enough that it naturally divides itself into two or three lanes even though they aren't marked as such. In that case, basically the further around the roundabout you are going, the more inward a lane you would take. If you aren't sure which exit you want (a rather common experience) then stick to the outer lanes. If you are waiting to turn left (so you would be going into the outer lane) and there is a vehicle coming towards you on the right in the inner lane, you are supposed to wait for that vehicle to pass before entering the roundabout. However this rule, as with so many others, tends not to be followed strictly if there is a lot of traffic, and drivers turning left will ignore the inner lane and join the roundabout provided that there is no vehicle in their lane.
Roundabouts work well when the volume of traffic is reasonably low, as it used to be in the UK. Nowadays, with congestion much more of a problem than it was, roundabouts can be less effective at managing traffic than normal traffic lights. For this reason, you find more and more roundabouts with traffic signals on the roundabout. Often, the signals only operate only during the rush hour to keep the traffic moving, and turn themselves off at other times.
5. Box Junctions
You will encounter some junctions, roundabouts and other places, eg level (grade) crossings with a cross-hatched yellow pattern on the road. It is illegal to enter the box unless your exit is clear. The exception is if you are waiting to turn right, then you can stop in the box until there is a gap in the oncoming traffic or the lights change. However, you must not do this if the road to the right is blocked - you'll end up illegally, and embarrassingly, blocking the junction and cause much sounding of horns. The aim is to reduce gridlock effects. Your exit being clear may be limited to your vehicle length if the traffic in front of that remains stationary. In theory, if you are stationary with your tyres [tires] inside the hatched area, you are breaking the law. However, you should be mindful that even if a British bobby is not there to monitor the situation, a camera might well be, and certainly the last part of the final paragraph in section 2 will come into force.
6. Pedestrian and School Crossings
Some pedestrian crossings, or zebra crossings, are marked by black and white stripes that cross the road in a direction perpendicular to the pavement (sidewalk) and black and white striped posts with orange, bulbous, flashing lights on top. These are called Belisha beacons. Pedestrians will wait at the side of the road until it is safe for them to cross. It is good courtesy to stop to allow people to cross, although there is no law stating that you must except when someone has moved onto the crossing, you must stop and let them cross.
See above for pedestrian crossings controlled by traffic lights.
Crossings for schoolchildren will be marked by signs and often two alternating flashing amber lights. These flash at times when the crossing will be used by schoolchildren. A "lollipop" man or lady will step out into the road and hold out a reflective sign with a round top that looks like as lollipop. You must stop when the lollipop man or lady steps out and allow people to cross.
7. Communicating with Other Drivers
You frequently find yourself with too little road-space in the UK. It's often necessary to stray into the opposing lane to get around obstacles such as parked cars, vans unloading, or roadworks. British drivers use hand signals and flash their lights to allow others into gaps, make room for each other and to thank other drivers for their courtesy. Confusingly, they also flash their lights as a rebuke too! If someone helps you out, it's a good idea to wave to say "thanks". The examples previous are why the Highway code says "Only flash your headlights to let other road users know that you are there. If another driver flashes his headlights, never assume that it is a signal to go. Use your own judgement and proceed carefully." The same applies for sounding your horn. It should only be used to warn other drivers of your presence. Even then certain laws apply :- You MUST NOT use your horn; while stationary on the road or when driving in a built up area between the hours of 11.30 pm and 7.00 am, except when another road user poses a danger.
It can be very difficult to find parking space in town and city centres, and in the centre of London it can be near impossible and hideously expensive if you DO manage to find a space. The basic rules regarding on-street parking in Britain are as follows:
A SINGLE, CONTINUOUS YELLOW LINE along the kerb indicates that a parking restriction exists AT SPECIFIC TIMES OF THE DAY, and these times will be indicated on small signs on poles, lampposts or even screwed onto adjacent walls of buildings. During these times you cannot park in these areas.
DOUBLE, CONTINUOUS YELLOW LINES along the kerb indicates NO PARKING AT ANY TIME. Normally these appear along narrow roads or lanes, close to junctions or close to important buildings such as schools or hospitals. Double Yellow zones are usually strictly policed by traffic wardens, and it is here that you run the biggest risk of being ticketed.
However, don't let the absence of yellow lines lull you into a false sense of security, because common in towns and city centres, you will come across WHITE MARKED BAYS with white markings indicate on street parking which is metered. Nearly always, these are "pay-and-display" parking areas where you purchase a ticket from an adjacent machine and display it on your windshield or dashboard. Always check the "controlled hours" - which are marked on the payment machines, and on adjacent signs (again, usually on lamp posts and on walls). Outwith these times you don't have to pay, but ensure that your ticket covers you for the time you will occupy the space. Traffic Wardens do patrol these areas and will fine any vehicle with an expired ticket
Some shops have parking lots but these are often full at busy times. Multi-storey car parks operated as part of an adjoining shopping mall are usually much cheaper than an independently operated one such as an NCP or QPark. There are two main kinds of fee-based car parks. In those known as "pay-and-display", there will be ticket machines mounted on pillars. Once you've found a parking space, you must go to the machine, buy a ticket (which may vary in price depending on how long you want to stay) and leave the ticket on the dashboard or stuck inside the windshield. Other car parks have a barrier at the entrance that will rise when you take a ticket from the machine; you then find a space and pay when you leave. In some car parks, particularly those associated with shopping malls, there will be a 'pay station' - usually somewhere near the stairwell or lifts - where you must insert your ticket and pay the required fee. You then have a reasonable time to get to your car and drive to the barrier, where you insert the ticket in order to proceed. Be warned that often the paying machines (particularly the "pay-and-display ones) do not give change so you must put in the correct amount. You may come across a variety of other parking payment or control systems in the UK. For example, some towns operate a disc system, where you set your arrival time on a cardboard clock-face (available from local shops, either free or for a small fee) and you can then park for as long as the nearby signs indicate is allowed. Another variation is a voucher system; you buy a voucher or book of vouchers - usually from a local shop or the Tourist Office - and display a voucher on the dashboard.
In a number of large cities, parking using your mobile/cell phone to pay the parking charge is now becoming more common. You will find details on the parking ticket machine if this option is available. Once you register for the first time, it is a very good option and saves you having to find change for the ticket machine, and in most cases will give you a text message to your mobile phone ten minutes before your parking expires. You then have the option to extend your parking without returning to your car.
Parking in supermarkets and retail parks is usually free, but those that are close to town centres or major attractions (those that are within walking distance of a major football stadium are a good example) often limit stays to no longer than 2 hours (even if you are a customer there) or are heavily patrolled either on foot or electronically and non-customers run the risk of being fined or even wheel clamped. The legality of this situation is currently under government review, and it is expected clamping on private car parks will be outlawed, but parking charges are likely to be allowed to continue, in order that businesses can protect their interests.
Many roads have parking restrictions which are marked in various ways - study the Highway Code to learn about these. A double yellow line by the kerb means that parking is not allowed at any time, however signs may explain seasonal restrictions, typically in rural areas around beauty spots. A single yellow line prohibits parking some time during the day. There will be small yellow signs on nearby walls or lamp-posts which indicate the restrictions in detail. A double red line means that stopping, not just parking, is prohibited all the time, a single red line means no stopping at the times posted. 'Red Routes' tend to have parking bays along them near shops etc. where you can stay for twenty minutes or so, and for those with disabled badges.
If you commit a parking infringement, you may be wheel-clamped [In Scotland wheel clamping is illegal except by the DVLA for not displaying a current road tax disk, however towing away is accepted] and have your car towed away; you have to pay a fine to release it.
On some pieces of private land used for car parking, wheel-clamping is carried out by private companies, some of who are unscrupulous and deliberately don't indicate clearly that a particular space is a clamping zone, effectively setting a trap for unwary motorists. If you park somewhere like this, look carefully all around to see if there are any notices or signs about wheel-clamping, even if there are no road markings. It's usually better to park on clearly marked space on the roadside, or in fee-paying car parks.
You MUST ensure all sidelights and rear registration plate lights are lit between sunrise and sunset (the period between half an hour after sunset and half an hour before sunrise). You MUST use headlights at night, except on a road which has lit street lighting.
You MUST use headlights when visibility is seriously reduced, generally when you cannot see for more than 100 metres (328 feet). Use dipped headlights, or dim-dip if fitted, at night in built-up areas and in dull daytime weather, to ensure that you can be seen . Even in a light mist, silver or light-coloured cars can become invisible even at modest speeds.
You may also use front or rear fog lights if visibility is seriously reduced, but you MUST switch them off when visibility improves. Leaving them on dazzles other road users and can obscure your brake lights.
Multi-storey car parks and those at shopping malls tend to be well lit at night. It is very easy to drive onto the public road when leaving without switching your lights on. Don't make this mistake!
In recent years the price of fuel in the UK has again become a major topic of conversation, having moved out of the limelight during the cheap oil years of the 1990s. But remember that the UK is a relatively small country, so you don't need to drive such long distances. As in the rest of Europe, diesel-powered cars are very popular in Britain due to their better economy, and you may well find yourself allocated a diesel car by your car rental company. Take this as advantage - but do remember to fill up with diesel and not petrol - most car rental companies charge heavy excesses for recovering you if you accidentally fill your car with the wrong fuel.
As of June 2012, petrol is currently around £1.26 /litre (about $7.42 per US gallon), diesel fuel on average is about 5p more than its petrol equivalent. However, prices vary quite dramatically from one place to another. In general, you'll find that filling stations attached to out-of-town supermarkets offer the cheapest fuel. They do this to attract shoppers. Filling stations in out-of-the-way rural areas tend to charge more as they don't have any competition and fewer customers; they may also be unable to get volume discounts from their supplier. But this is not always the case - some rural stations are very reasonable.
This web site allows you to search for the cheapest fuel in your local area, although it doesn't cover all the filling stations. It's worth pointing out that there is no relationship between the price of petrol and the oil company that supplies the filling station - among Shell stations for example, you can find wide variations in price. Fuel stations in Britain are nearly all self-service.
Like in the USA, people who injure or kill other road users, including pedestrians, through carelessness or neglect, are increasingly sent to prison. Recently British drivers have been prosecuted for searching for sweets (candy), unwrapping a chocolate bar, drinking water, and putting on their makeup while driving. Using a mobile (cell) phone whilst driving is strictly forbidden, and even hands-free kits are frowned upon (as they cause a distraction). Other than in an emergency when it is unsafe or impractical to stop, drivers of a vehicle may not use a hand-held mobile phone. This means if you have to pick up the phone at all to use it, you are breaking the law. It is widely disregarded, but you should not take this as an invitation to use yours. Not only could it cost you a fine, it could cost you your life, as well as that of any others you may hit.
If you are driving in the UK for any period of time, you should be aware that day two or three is a time to be careful. At the start, you will be thinking all the time. After an hour or so, you will have become familiar with the driving practice keeping a high level of concentration. As you become more comfortable, so your guard will slip. This probably won't be a problem in areas of high traffic volume, where you will be given a lot of clues on what you should be doing or where you should be in the road, but on quieter roads, or late at night, those clues may be fewer, and turns at junctions could see you making a mistake.
In your first day or so, if you feel you are losing your way, you should stop and ask, or check your map, rather than just drive on. You will need all your concentration to deal with the unfamiliar practices, and you probably won't have much spare brain space for sorting out whether the signs said Braintree or Brentwood, Liverpool or Lancaster, Llandaff, Llandudno or London. British signing is reasonably good for trunk (major) roads, but can be pretty poor at local level. Many times you could see directions to a place, then not see it again (the locals don't need signs, they know where it is): if you are heading that way, you can easily become disorientated.
Direction Signs on motorways (freeways) have a blue background; direction signs on trunk roads have a green background; and signs on non-primary local roads have a white background with a black border*. It is suggested that for your first foray you plan your journey well, with a clear map in your mind, as well as in the car, of where you want to be, and places nearby. Look for large towns beyond your destination, as many direction signs target such places. You should try to plan on 20-mile stages, with way points based on large towns if possible. That will make life so much easier. Don't forget the natives speak English (although with a strange accent) and are usually quite tame, unless poked with a big stick. A good website for directions and road rescue information is the AA ( Automobile Association ). Another website worth looking at is www.transportdirect.info, as this not only gives routes and maps but also gives routes using public transport, giving bus numbers, train timetables and (sometimes) fares.
While the above seem to stop all forms of transport enjoyment, you will quickly realise that common sense is the watchword. Most British drivers are reasonably courteous, and if you are seen to be making a genuine error, you will be more than likely to incur only a shake of the head from world weary drivers affected by your action.
After the first half an hour, it will seem really easy, so don't worry, and enjoy the UK!
Read the Highway Code before you leave home, and remember UK traffic police do not carry guns.
* The exception to this is Milton Keynes - incomprehensibly, all the road signs are black lettering on white backgrounds.