Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Surviving In Britain #5: Driving

As I am still barely containing the panic, Paul Anderson (or Mr Julia Heathcote as he's often known at SVP) has very kindly written a final post for all you colonials on the perils of driving on British roads.

Most people coming to SVP will take public transport, but for those brave souls who intend to get a rental, the prospect of driving in the UK may appear daunting. It isn't nearly as scary as you might think. Sure, everything's on the wrong side of the road, the cars are smaller, the roads narrower and twistier, and nothing is set out on a sensible grid system, but apart from that...

Your car

Most cars in the UK are manual transmission, although you may be lucky and get an automatic. The first thing you'll notice is that the driver's seat is on the right, not the left. The gear stick will be at the driver's left hand, which may take some getting used to if you drive a manual transmission in the States. [Ed: you will also need to use the hand brake, situated behind the gear stick. Pull the hand brake up before you release the foot brake to ensure the car does not roll away.]

The car will also generally be smaller than in the US, but more fuel efficient. This is a good thing, because the price of petrol in the UK is far higher than you will be used to. 105.9 pence per litre is about the average at the moment (and it will be higher at motorway service stations), which is approximately $6 to the gallon. As well as being more fuel efficient, you will also be driving shorter distances, so hopefully this won't break the budget. Most cars take unleaded petrol, but be careful in case you get a diesel engine - you don't want to mix them up.

On the road

We drive on the left. Always on the left. Please do not forget this.

The UK equivalent of the interstate is the motorway. These are multilane fast roads, identified by an M followed by a number. Signs on the motorway are white text on a blue background. The maximum speed limit is 70mph, lower depending on conditions, roadworks etc. Junctions (offramps) are numbered and signposted.

After motorways, the UK has A roads and B roads. A roads are the major roadways, but can vary from single carriageway to multilane dual carriageways. Some A roads have more lanes than some motorways. Speed limits on A roads vary from as low as 30mph all the way up to national speed limit (this is 70mph on dual carriageways, but only 60mph on single carriageways).

Within towns, cities and built up areas, the speed limit will usually be 30mph unless otherwise marked.

Speed limit signs are black text on white circular signs with a red trim, with the exception of the national speed limit sign, which is a white circle with a black bar running diagonally from the upper right to the lower left. If you are changing from a lower speed to a higher speed, then you may only travel at the higher speed from the point of the sign. If however you are going from a higher speed to a lower speed zone then you must be travelling at the lower speed by the time you reach the sign.

Traffic signals and other road markings

The sequence of traffic lights is red for "stop", red + amber for "get ready" then green for "go". When changing back again, the sequence is green, amber, red. At pedestrian crossings, after a red light there will be a flashing amber light. You may pass through an amber light only if there are no pedestrians crossing the road at that point.

Sometimes there will be filter arrows that allow you to turn, even if the traffic light is at red. These will apply only to the turn lane, and will be marked by a green arrow that lights up in conjunction with the red light.

Please be aware that unlike in the US, it is not permitted to turn on a red signal even if there is no traffic coming.

Stop signs are few and far between in the UK. More common is the give way sign (yield). It is a red and white triangle with the point downwards, and the road marking is a double white broken line. You must yield to traffic coming from your right.

As well as traffic light pedestrian crossings, be on the lookout for "zebra crossings". These are marked by black and white lampposts with a yellow flashing light at the top, and the road will have white stripes across it. If pedestrians are standing at the crossing waiting to cross, then you must slow down and stop for them if safe to do so.

The most common road signs you will see in the UK can be found here.


These are not nearly as terrifying as you might suppose. Always travel in a clockwise direction around the roundabout, and the golden rule is that if there is traffic coming from your right, you do not enter the roundabout. Only when it is clear for you to do so should you enter. Once on the roundabout, you have priority over other traffic waiting to enter.

If you wish to turn off at the first exit from a roundabout, approach it whilst signalling left, in the furthest left lane. If you wish to exit from the second exit, do not signal left until you have passed the first exit. If you wish to exit from the third exit (or any further exits) then approach the roundabout signalling right. Once on the roundabout, keep signalling right until you are approaching the exit you need. Only then should you signal left to indicate that you are about to exit.

Roundabouts vary in size from mini-roundabouts in towns, to massive multi-exit roundabouts controlling entry to motorways. Some roundabouts also use traffic lights to help regulate traffic flow.


UK towns and cities are densely populated, and as such parking is often restricted. If there are double yellow lines down the edge of the road it means you may not park there at all. Doing so risks, at a minimum, a parking fine. But in some places it may mean that your vehicle will be clamped, and possibly removed.

A single yellow line indicates that parking is restricted to certain times, which will be signposted close by.

Often there are parking bays marked - usually in conjunction with metered parking. Most towns and cities have several dedicated pay car parks - these will be signposted on road signs. Look out for a white letter P on a blue background.

Some safety reminders
  • It is against the law to use your mobile phone whilst driving.
  • Police traffic enforcement officers may stop any driver they suspect of not giving due care and attention to driving - eating, reading a map etc can all constitute failure to give due care and attention.
  • Wearing seatbelts is compulsory.
  • Please do not drink and drive. It is against the law, and it is taken very seriously by the police.

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