When planning our trip around England, we realized there were things we wanted to see that just weren’t accessible by train. I realized that driving on the opposite side of the road would be a challenge, but didn’t know how crazy it would be. It turns out it is tough for Americans to drive on the opposite side of the road!
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Parking Wherever One Can Find a Spot
What assumptions would you make about this street? As a US driver, I would know that this was a one-way street. In the UK, your assumption would be wrong. Drivers routinely park on either side of the road. This also means that you cannot use the parked cars as a guide to assure you that you are driving on the correct side. It’s not a good feeling wondering whether you are about to slam into oncoming traffic.
In England, there are rotaries everywhere. Every couple of miles on the highway (do they call them highways?), you will enter a rotary where traffic goes in a circle with one to five exits. Thankfully, we had a little experience with roundabouts, living in New England, but the scope of the rotary was like nothing we had ever experienced before. Some rotaries are five lanes; then, you must figure out how to end up in the lane that you need to be in to exit the roundabout. Also, instead of entering the roundabout counter-clockwise as we would do at home, we had to resist the habit and enter clockwise. It always felt as if we were heading into oncoming traffic. Also, we had to continually remind ourselves to look right for oncoming traffic, instead of left.
Many English roads, especially in the countryside, were built in the time of the Roman occupation when horses were the main form of transportation. Because of this, some of them are very narrow, but they are used as two-lane roads today. So you nearly skim each other as the opposing car speeds by. Sometimes, you have to pull over and stop entirely to let the opposing traffic by, which is an odd feeling, not knowing who is supposed to get out of the way first. And that brings me to speed…
In this picture is in the US, the speed limit to this lane would likely be 15 mph. Not in England, where it was 30 mph. The slowest speed limits that we saw were 30 mph, but most are at least 50 mph with highways traveling at 70 mph, and they don’t seem to slow down for the roundabouts. The British were generally very polite drivers but were usually speeding well past the recommended limits. Fifty mph on a narrow highway that barely fits two cars with a truck barreling by is very scary! There are many traffic cameras on the sides of the road ready to send you a ticket, so I am surprised that they speed so much.
Obscure Traffic Signs and Symbols
I naively thought that traffic lights and signs were universal. They are not. Most things we figured out, but some I couldn’t even by the end. Where we would have a left-turn arrow, England has a set of parallel signal lights. One is for straight travel, and one is for cars turning left. Making sense of the signs was made even more difficult because our attention was drawn continuously to staying out the way of oncoming traffic.
Why Americans Driving in England is Worth all that Stress
All that accounted for, few things make me as happy as the freedom of doing what you want, when and where you want, that a road trip affords, so I will leave my comfort zone and drive on the opposite side of the road again. My favorite place that I visited on this trip was the Cotswolds, and my husband loved visiting Shakespeare’s birthplace.
Above are some pictures from our English road trip. Here is our itinerary if you want to check it out.
A couple of Tips:
- Next time I will study road signs ahead of time and be more aware of what to expect.
- Pay the extra money to get the GPS on-board your car. It is illegal in the UK to use your cell phone, even at a stop sign. It was a lifesaver to have the GPS warning us about upcoming turns.
- If you are used to driving an automatic transmission, be sure to get an automatic car. Most cars in the UK are manual transmissions. It took me a lot of hunting to get an automatic, but it was more than worth it. You can search for your rental car here.
- It is illegal to drive in the UK without safety restraints, although as a person who worked in an ER, you are crazy not to wear one everywhere.
- We did not attempt to drive in London as we were warned ahead of time not to. There are places to return cars at the airports which are outside of the city.
- Here is a helpful article with some more great tips.
- This article is not a complete guide, just some cheeky advice from one who experienced it. Check with governmental websites for all you need to know or ask your rental car company.
Have you had any interesting driving adventures in a foreign country? I would also love to know if my friends from the UK, Ireland, or Australia find driving here in the US as crazy. Please be sure to share it in the comments.