Driving in the UK

Driving in the UK is an adventure. Even for the people that live there.

Rules of the Road: The Basics

(As a suggestion: if you are concerned about driving and getting around, pick up a copy of The Highway Code which is published every year by the Stationary Office and costs about £1.50, see below for further information).

All cars drive on the left side of the road and most cars are adapted so that the driver sits on the right. Speed limits are mostly posted on white circular signs with a red border and black numbers in the middle. All speeds are in Miles per Hour (MPH). An area where the “National Speed Limit” applies will have a white circular sign with a black diagonal line through it. The national speed limit is as follows:

  • 70 MPH - On Motorways or divided roads.
  • 60 MPH - On non-divided roads.
  • 30 MPH - In built-up areas (though typically 30 MPH zones are posted) - The Highway Code (see above) defines this as an area where the street lights are X meters apart though how you are supposed to be able to determine this when you are driving by is beyond me.

A motorway is a specific type of road that is marked with blue signs and has a name beginning with a “M” (incidently other roads are also marked using letters “A”, “B” and “C” in order of diminishing size, unnumbered roads are a lot more frequent than what you might expect but typically local roads only). Motorways have their own specific rules which include things such as not being able to stop on the hard shoulder except in emergency.

A dashed line across your lane on approaching another road indicates that you are to YIELD to traffic on that road (an inverted triangle may also be drawn on the road to indicate that a yield intersection is ahead). A double set of dashed lines simply indicates an intersection with a major road whereas a single dashed line indicates a smaller road.

For your information, a blue circle with a red border and red X through it means “Clearway”, that is, no stopping in the area indicated.

Lights at an intersection follow the following pattern:

  • Red - Stop behind the line indicated.
  • Red AND Yellow - The light will shortly turn to green. Stay in position (NOTE: This is often used by drivers to remove the hand brake – see below).
  • Green - Proceed when it is safe to do so.
  • Yellow - Stop behind the line indicated.
  • Red …

Note: Some lights may have green arrows to indicate that traffic may proceed in the direction indicated.

Rural driving poses unique difficulties since many back roads are narrow, perhaps only single lanes, and tend to be fairly winding. The best bet is to pay attention and never assume that it will be clear around the corner. Many places will also have “cattle grids” (known as “Texas Gates” in North America) which are used if livestock is loose in the area in which the road runs, be careful when crossing these grids – if you make a sharp movement the car will tend to glide across in the original direction. In these areas also watch for livestock (mostly sheep) which may spring out suddenly from the side of the road. Speed limits tend to be 60 mph on these roads but it is seldom that you can actually get anywhere near this speed (nor would you want to) because of the challenge it poses to drivers – SLOW DOWN. Additionally, should you see a sign marked “ford” this is refering to a stream that flows OVER the road so, in the case of flooding, this can be a major hazard – SLOW DOWN.

English Cars

Most cars on the road have a standard transmission as petrol (gas) is extremely expensive (currently around about 70p a liter) not many people drive automatic cars. Be aware of this if you are renting a car (never mind the fact that if you get a standard transmission the gear shift may not be on the same side of your seat while driving as you are used to). Many of the road signs (and driving documentation) will refer to issues specific to standard tranmission cars.

The hand brake (“emergency break”) is commonly used during driving when in a position where you are stopped (commonly the rule is said to be if you have enough time to use it – use it). When the red and yellow lights are displayed at a traffic signal many use this as a time to remove the hand brake.

English Drivers

English drivers are very much use to the winding, narrow roads that are very much the norm in the UK. They tend to stay on the road though they also tend to NOT stay within the speed limits. Do NOT fall into the trap of matching their (most often) ridiculous speed, especially on the motorways. There are automatic speed cameras located in many towns (mostly in 30 mph zones) and on the motorways (in busier areas). Fines are fairly steep so keep the speed down! Police do use hand-held speeding detection equipment (laser I believe) but this is far less often then relying on the automatic cameras.

English drivers tend to be a bit impatient – it is not unusual to see a driver taking the law into their own hands in a traffic queue by driving on the hard shoulder – very much against the law. Many will not signal before changing lanes and will pass you (illegally) on the left if they think you are not going fast enough (even if you are going the speed limit or very close to it). PAY ATTENTION!

Most popular ways English drivers like to break the law…or, at least, cause a lot of confusion:

  • Speeding - Nearly everyone does it. Nothing like being passed at 60 MPH in a 30 zone. Everyone travels 90 on the motorways though the limit is 70. The AA recently reported that “Most motorists understand the need for limits but all admit to breaking them, believing they are 'wrong' or simply out of date…” (AA Members Magazine, Issue Four 1999). Let's home they don't think it is wrong to not be allowed to kill people…Perhaps they do when they speed, well, at least that is the end result.
  • Passing on the Left - This is ILLEGAL though many people see a spot in traffic and accelerate towards it…
  • Not Using a Signal - You should KNOW they want to turn left at a four-way intersection.
  • Parking Anywhere They Want - A common situation both here and in Europe, it is often you will see cars parked on the sidewalk (pavement), blocking drives, on the grass, ….
  • Driving While Using a Mobile Phone - You can tell because they are the ones weaving everywhere and driving on the grass.
  • Wrong Use of Roundabouts - Despite the rules, people that have been driving for years still get it wrong (see below). I am OFTEN cut off on roundabouts by drivers who simply don't pay attention.
  • Merging into traffic - Most drivers will ASSUME that you will give way to them when they are merging from a side road into a main thoroughfare. If you are in the slow lane and see traffic merging from the left be aware that they may not pay too much attention to you and attempt to run into you if you do not yield.
  • Blinking their lights - If you are in front of someone and they are blinking their lights at you, likely they are wanting you to get out of their way…if you are in the slow lane, it is unclear what you should do, perhaps go into the bushes?

Roundabouts

Roundabouts are so tricky to understand that I have decided to devote a whole section to them. Simply speaking, a roundabout is a circular traffic intersection that allows traffic to move efficiently into different roads. In general though, roundabouts are easy to understand. All traffic entering a roundabout MUST yield to traffic from the right. A roundabout is always in a clock-wise direction (unless otherwise directed, for example due to construction).

  • Turning Right - To turn right, get in the right lane (if present) and turn on your right signal on approaching. After entering the roundabout proceed to the inner-most lane, indicating left immediately after the exit prior to your own. To exit the roundabout, you can proceed to the outside lane (if your way is clear) or the inner lane (if present) on your exit road.
  • Turning Left - To turn left, get in the left lane (if present) and turn on your left signal. After entering the roundabout, stay in the outside lane and proceed to the outside lane of your exit road (continuing to signal until you have left the roundabout).
  • Proceeding Straight - To continue straight get into the middle lane (if present or the left/right lane if not). Whichever lane you enter the roundabout using, you should stay in that lane on the roundabout (so, if you enter in the middle lane, use the middle lane on the roundabout and NOT the inner or outer lane). Signal left after the exit immediately prior to your exit. When leaving the roundabout, again, stay in the lane you entered the roundabout on (if possible).
  • Performing a U-Turn - Proceed as if turning right, continuing around the roundabout, signalling left immediately after the exit prior to your own. Proceed out of the roundabout as normal.

There are exceptions to these rules typically in larger areas or on bigger roundabouts where specific lanes may be indicated for specific destinations from the roundabout. A good guide is to always pay attention and take it slowly. Other recommendations I have heard are to stay in the far left lane no matter where you are turning too but this may be dangerous in that drivers will not be expecting this.

When approaching a roundabout, most will have a sign mapping the layout of the roundabout and indicate most exits. A good thing to do is to know which direction you are taking on the roundabout before entering it. The sign always indicates the point at which you are entering the roundabout at the bottom.

Driver's License

To drive in the UK you need a current driver's license (licenses for most countries are allowed for use in periods up to a year in the UK). An International Driving Permit is NOT required.

It is always tricky to get around in the UK. Having a good map is only the first (but not insignificant step). Good road atlas's are available at almost every petrol (gas) station, newsagent (corner store) or book store. Be sure you get the one most readable and easy for you to use. Do not even consider picking up something with a scale of less than 4 miles to 1 inch otherwise you will get lost if you do not stick to MAJOR roads.

When looking for connecting roads they may not always be marked with the number of the road but may be marked with the names of the towns instead (or some combination of the two). The towns listed on signs will tend to be the biggest towns along the road and/or the names of some of the immediate smaller towns. Always best to know both when looking for a sign. Note: There is NOT always a sign on some of the back roads so be prepared to “turn left at the second road” in some places. Unless you know where you are going try to avoid taking un-numbered roads as these tend to be used by locals who know where they are going and NOT necessarily well documented by the map makers.

If you are considering driving into a town of any significant size a detailed map of that town is really required. Some of the atlases include small maps in the back which may be of some use but for any larger towns (say, Manchester) these maps are useless. If you are really anxious for a good local map there are a series of “Red Books” which provide detailed maps for specific areas available at many petrol stations.

A copy of The Highway Code can be obtained in most UK bookstores and newsagents or from:

HMSO Publications Centre
P.O. Box 276, London ENGLAND SW8 5DT
Telephone Orders: (020) 7873 9090
General Enquiries: (020) 7873 0011
Fax Orders: (020) 7873 8200

Further Information