Visit Britain

Driving in Britain: Getting the Hang of the Highway

Visit Britain

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A man and a woman drive a classic car through the Chatsworth Estate amid the landscape of Derbyshire's Peak District …

Driving on the "wrong" side of the road is a challenge for most North American visitors to Britain. It’s an even bigger one going 70 miles an hour on Britain's motorways (highways), checking directions and encountering dreaded roundabouts. The Highway Code is the government's official guide to the rules of the road, and it’s well worth a look before you venture out anywhere in England, Scotland or Wales. Driving is easiest if you don’t attempt it alone; you will generally do better with a navigator.

Lost in translation
In addition to directions and map reading, you don’t want to get lost over confusion surrounding the names of things. You will encounter "articulated lorries" on the "dual carriageway" of the "motorway" via "roundabouts," over a "level crossing" or two. (That is, you will encounter semi trucks on the divided highway via traffic circles and a railroad crossing.) You'll find it odd to drive on the left, but if you stay a "fortnight" (a couple weeks) you'll be accustomed.

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Trucks like these are called lorries in Britain. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

Imperial versus metric
Unlike the European continent, distances in Britain are measured in miles, not kilometers, and speeds are referred to in miles per hour. However, your petrol (gas) will be measured out in imperial gallons, each of which is equivalent to 1.2 U.S. gallons.

Shapes and colors
British road signs are shaped based on category: Circles give orders, triangles give warnings and rectangles give information. The red octagonal stop sign looks the same as ours. There is no yield sign. There could be one that says "Give Way," which means you should let other cars go first.

You may also notice white painted dash lines on the road, which mean you must yield to traffic on your right (which will generally be going faster than you are). Foreign visitors may overlook these lines, but they are very important for everyone's safety. Highway identification signs are blue, exit signs are green and historical markers are brown.

Alphabet soup network
It’s a good idea to get to know British road naming conventions. A highway is a motorway (despite the name of the government manual). It will be indicated on your map by an M followed by a number, such as the M1 to Cambridge or M4 from Heathrow. The M25 encircles London and can be a traffic headache (you can check the government's traffic update website for current information). Sometimes called the orbital, this busiest of British byways is long (117 miles) and confusing, with as many as 10 or 12 lanes in places. Smaller arteries are labeled as a road followed by a number, and a B road is a rural road with no shoulders for passing.

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The shape of a British road sign indicates its purpose. Warning signs are triangles. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty …

Roundabout rules
Do slow down but do not stop upon entering a roundabout, of which there are many in the UK. You must give way (yield) to vehicles on your right and circle in a clockwise rotation. The most important thing to know is the function of lanes within the roundabout, which indicate where that driver intends to exit off the roundabout or whether he will carry "straight on." Plan ahead to ensure you find yourself in the correct lane, and use your turn signal. Mini-roundabouts are everywhere, and while they are smaller, they require attention and follow the same rules.

Passing etiquette
It's important to remember that exit ramps are on the opposite side of the road in Britain, so the slower lane is your left lane. If the driver behind you wants to pass you while you're in the fast lane, he will flash his headlights. He may do the same if he is inviting you to go ahead of him or a pedestrian to cross. The driver will likely not toot the car horn. Change lanes to let a driver pass and he will likely give you a wave of the hand as he goes past. It's just manners. By the way, do the same when it's your turn to say thanks.

Speed limits
Speed limits change constantly as motorways go in and out of built-up areas and roundabouts. It's important to be aware of the posted speed regulations. Government ministers are still debating the pros and cons of a proposal in 2011 to raise the highway limit from 70 miles an hour to 80.

Renting a car
If you can only drive an automatic transmission, you must request one when renting or you may be given a manual. If you do drive a manual, driving a British version takes a bit more getting used to, since you manipulate the gears with the other hand. Stay sharp and happy trails!

by Laurie Jo Miller Farr

Photos: A man and a woman drive a classic car through the Chatsworth Estate amid the landscape of Derbyshire's Peak District National Park, England. (Photo by Daniel Bosworth/Visit Britain via East Midlands Tourism)

Trucks like these are called lorries in Britain. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

The shape of a British road sign indicates its purpose. Warning signs are triangles. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

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