A Guide To Driving in the UK

The car

Cars available for hire in the UK will be right-hand drive models (ie the driver sits on the right-hand side of the car) and will usually have manual transmission (stick-shift) with the gears being operated by a gear lever in combination with a clutch pedal. Most cars have the gear lever fitted at floor level between the driver and passenger although some have the lever mounted on the steering column (but this is unusual). Americans and Europeans among you should bear in mind, that even if you are used to driving with a stick-shift, you will have to use your left hand to change gear in a British hire car. If you are hiring a car and want one with automatic transmission be sure to say so at the time you make the booking. Cars with automatic transmission are likely to be in short supply.

In the UK, cars are fitted with a handbrake rather than the foot-operated emergency brake which Americans may be used to. This is located between the driver's and passenger's seats and is also operated with the left hand. It is necessary to put the handbrake on when stuck in traffic or at a junction on a slope as as to avoid rolling backwards (or forwards as the case may be).

The foot pedals are arranged in the same order throughout the world. From the left you will find first the clutch, in the middle the brake and on the right the accelerator (gas pedal). The clutch is operated with the left foot and the other two with the right foot.

Recently manufactured cars sold in the UK will have been fitted with white headlights, amber indicator lights, red brake lights and red rear fog lamps as standard. You may see cars from Europe with yellow headlights. The rear fog lamps are the same level of brightness as brake lights. It is illegal to use them except when it is foggy or visibility is severely reduced in a snow storm. You're not supposed to use them just because it is dark or raining but a lot of people do.

The direction indicator (turn signal) control is normally mounted on a stick on the steering column. Cars imported from Japan have this mounted on the right (in common with older cars of UK origin) and cars manufactured within the European Union (EU) on the left. The windscreen wiper control is also mounted on the steering column. British folk who swap from one car to another can often be seen driving along in brilliant sunshine operating their windscreen wipers at junctions!

The speedometer in a British hire car will be calibrated in both miles per hour and kilometres per hour, the miles being the larger and more obvious of the two sets of markings.

The road

We drive on the left side of the road throughout the UK. We drive around roundabouts (traffic circles) in a clockwise direction.

The same road traffic laws and regulations apply throughout the UK. Signs are

in English throughout the UK and in both English and Welsh in Wales. You may also find the odd sign translated into French near the channel ports.

Road quality varies. Except for a few country lanes (principally private roads leading from the public highway to farms) roads will all have a hard tarmac or concrete surface.


Motorways are the UK equivalent of US freeways and are supposedly the highest quality of road although they can be unpleasant to drive on when traffic is very heavy especially during peak periods. Motorways have two carriageways separated by a central reservation (usually a strip of grass about 4ft wide with a metal crash barrier along its full length). Typically, a motorway has a hard shoulder and three lanes in each direction. Occasionally they have only two lanes in each direction. Recently refurbished stretches of motorway (eg the M4 near Heathrow airport and the M25) have 4 lanes in each direction. A stretch of the M8 in Glasgow even has 4 lanes in one direction and 5 in the other!

The hard shoulder which is on the left-hand side of each carriageway is where you park in the event of a breakdown. You are not supposed to stop on the hard shoulder except in the event of a breakdown or other emergency. The left-hand lane (often referred to as the inside lane) is the lane that you are supposed to stick to except when overtaking (ie passing). The other two lanes are for overtaking although it is permissible to continue in the middle lane after overtaking if there is other slower moving traffic in the left-hand lane. The right-hand lane (often referred to as the outside lane) is for overtaking only. Certain types of vehicles are not permitted in the right- hand lane at all although that doesn't mean you won't encounter them there on occasion! Please note an important difference between driving in the US and the UK is that overtaking on the inside (ie to the left of another vehicle) is not permitted. You may only overtake (ie pass) by pulling out to the right of another vehicle and around it. However, people do sometimes overtake on the left-hand side so be prepared for this.

Traffic already on the motorway has priority over traffic joining the motorway. When joining a motorway you are supposed to use the slip road (the UK name for the on-ramp) to gain speed so that you can ease in between the traffic which is already whizzing along at 70 mph.

The slip road (ie the off-ramp) for traffic leaving always comes before the slip road for traffic joining the motorway at junctions although some inner city ring roads have an odd system where both the traffic joining and the traffic leaving the ring road use the same slip road. Coventry is one of these. Charing Cross in Glasgow is another. This set-up is dangerous.

The exit slip road almost invariably leads to a roundabout either underneath or over the motorway so that you have the option of turning either left or right or even rejoining the motorway if you find you've made a mistake and have left at the wrong junction.

Service areas are adjacent to the motorway and have their own entrance and exit slip roads. You don't normally have to leave the motorway at a junction to find a petrol station although occasionally the service station

will be located next to the exit roundabout. Service areas are usually about 30 miles apart except for some new stretches of motorway where they haven't all been built yet (there will be signs warning you if there is no petrol for more than 30 miles).

Motorway service stations are run by a variety of companies including Granada, Road Chef and Trust House Forte. The latter are often signposted 'Welcome Break' and usually include a Little Chef restaurant. Little Chef is a chain which specialises in roadside cafe-style restaurants where you can get breakfast at any time of day plus a variety of other dishes. Many 'A' roads have Little Chefs (these are likely to be open from about 10:00 until 23:00). When you stop at one you can get a free map showing where all the others are. Food is cheap but edible and service is usually fast. You won't find gourmet food at motorway service stations or roadside cafes.

Motorways are patrolled by unmarked police cars (with uniformed officers inside) as well as white patrol cars with red and yellow stripes down the side. The first you will know that you are being stopped by an unmarked car is when the blue lights (usually mounted under the bumpers) start to flash.

Motorways have emergency phones (which connect you to the local Police) at one mile intervals on the hard shoulder. They are mounted in orange boxes. Calls are free. The posts along the hard shoulder are marked with arrows to indicate the direction of the nearest call box. These phones are intended for use only in the event of a breakdown, accident or other emergency.

'A' Roads

'A' roads are the next highest quality and are usually marked in red on maps. These may have one or two lanes on either side but seldom three. Roads with more than one lane on either side are known as dual-carriageways and will usually have a barrier of some sort to separate the carriageways or a proper central reservation as found on motorways. Roads with only one lane in each direction will usually have a broken white line down the middle to indicate the position of the centre of the road. The length of the white dashes is longer on the approach to hazards such as bends. A double solid white line means that overtaking is not permitted by traffic on either side of the road. A double white line comprising a solid line and a broken line indicates that overtaking is permitted by traffic on the broken line side only. The edge of the road may have a solid white line to assist nighttime visibility where there is no street lighting. Solid white lines across the carriageway (ie your side of the road) at a junction (usually accompanied by a red and white stop sign) mean that you must stop before proceeding across the junction. Dotted lines across the carriageway (often accompanied by a triangular 'yield' or 'give way' sign) mean that you should slow down almost to a stop before determining whether it is safe to proceed. Bends in the road are often indicated by black and white chevrons - the more chevrons the sharper the curve.

'B' Roads

'B' roads are narrower and usually marked in orange or yellow on maps. Driving on these will be much slower than on motorways or 'A' roads. Roads

with no letter or number will be of lower quality still. In places such as Devon, Cornwall, the Scottish Highlands and darkest Gloucestershire these may be single track roads with passing places. The lower quality roads are unlikely to have any markings.

Road signs

Signposting is excellent. Signs are easy to spot and easy to follow. Three types of road signs can be found throughout the UK. Many of these are also found in Europe. The shape varies according to the purpose of the sign: circles command, triangles warn and rectangles inform. Command signs are usually red and white. Rectangular signs are green on ordinary roads and blue on motorways. You may also find brown rectangular signs providing directions to tourist attractions, particularly National Trust properties. Turnings and junctions are signposted well ahead of the time when you need to signal and then again just before the actual turning.

Signs you will encounter frequently are:

STOP - this is a red octagonal (or circular) sign with the word STOP in large friendly letters.

NO ENTRY - this is a circular red sign with a white horizontal bar across.

YIELD - this is a white triangle with a red border and the word YIELD in black letters. (This is the older version of the 'give way' sign and means the same thing.)

GIVE WAY - this is a white triangle with a red border and the words GIVE WAY in black letters.

ONE WAY - this is a vertical blue rectangle with a white arrow pointing upwards.

SPEED LIMITS - except for the National limit (see below) these are round white signs with a red border and the speed limit in large, unfriendly, black letters in miles per hour (NOT kilometres).

NATIONAL SPEED LIMIT - this is a round white sign with a black border and black diagonal bar across (the limit is 60 mph).

NO U-TURNS - this is a white circular sign with a red border, a black upturned U and a red bar across.

Speed limits

Speed limits are posted in miles per hour throughout the UK and in kilometres per hour throughout Europe.

In so-called built-up areas, ie streets with street lights at intervals of less than 200 yards, the speed limit is 30 mph unless there are signs which indicate a different limit (dual carriageways will often have a higher limit).

The speed limit on motorways and dual carriageways is 70 mph unless a lower limit is stated (there are temporary signs set into the central reservation on

motorways which the Police can switch on and off when they want to set a lower limit eg if there is traffic congestion ahead).

On other roads the speed limit is 60 mph unless a lower limit is stated. The black and white sign with a diagonal bar means 'national speed limit' ie 60 mph. (It used to mean no limit at all until the 60s.) Many roads including motorways are now fitted with cameras which detect cars exceeding the speed limit and photograph them in the act. Such cameras are usually mounted in grey boxes at the side of the road or on the central reservation on dual carriageways. Sometimes there are road signs (black on white) with a picture of a camera to warn drivers of the existence of speed traps. One in particular to watch out for is on the A4 which runs alongside Heathrow airport. The stretch east of the Edwardian Raddison hotel has a 40 mph limit. If you hire a car at Heathrow you may well find yourself on this road.

Road works

Much of the UK is plagued with road works throughout the summer months. Don't be surprised if you find long sections of the motorways with one or more lanes coned off to allow road maintenance crews to carry out repairs. It is usual for roadworks on motorways to be subject to a reduced speed limit of 50 mph. This will be signposted.


Although not invented in either Swindon or Hemel Hempstead, these two towns boast more roundabouts per head of population than anywhere else in the UK. Once you get used to them they do work very well, honest!

On approaching a roundabout you should slow down and be prepared to stop but shouldn't automatically stop (this will annoy UK drivers). The rule is that you give way to traffic already on the roundabout or approaching it from your right if you are both likely to get to it at the same time. You go round a roundabout in a clockwise direction and signal left as you pass the exit before the one you want to take.

On a dual carriageway which ends in a roundabout, if you want to turn right you should approach the roundabout in the right-hand lane. If you approach in the left-hand lane you might find that the guy next to you is going straight on. You can go straight on from either lane.

Traffic lights

Traffic lights are usually mounted on poles set into the sides of the road at junctions although in busy urban areas you may find them mounted overhead. Each set of lights has three lights arranged in a vertical column with red at the top, amber (yellow) in the middle and green at the bottom.

When approaching traffic lights if they change to red you MUST stop. You can cross a junction on an amber light if you are too close to the junction when the light changes from green to amber to stop safely but crossing a junction on a red light is strictly forbidden. You are not allowed to turn on a red light as in the US. You cannot proceed until the lights turn green.

The sequence of the lights is:

Red - you must stop Red and amber together - engage gear and prepare to move off but do not cross the line yet Green - you may now proceed across the junction Amber - the light is about to change to red so be ready to stop if it does Red - you must stop

You may also encounter another light mounted on the side of the main column of traffic lights and which has red and green arrows. If the arrow is green while the main light is red this means that you may proceed in the direction of the arrow but in that direction only. Wide roads will often have a so- called filter lane on the left-hand side so that traffic in this lane can be controlled by the use of such arrows. Such lanes will also have an arrow indicating a left turn. You are not supposed to use this lane if you intend driving straight ahead. If you do so you will block the lane when the green arrow lights up and will incur the wrath of those queued behind you.

Emergency vehicles

Emergency vehicles ie Police, ambulance and fire engines have blue flashing lights. Anyone with a red flashing light is either an imposter or a highway maintenance engineer attending the scene of an accident or subsidence to the road or whatever. Breakdown trucks have yellow flashing lights.


Petrol (gasoline) is currently about GBP 2.40 a gallon (Imperial not US gallon). A US gallon is 4/5 the size of an Imperial gallon. At an exchange rate of USD 1.60 = GBP 1.00 this means that the cost is approximately USD 3.00 per US gallon. Petrol is sold in litres these days but you will always find the price quoted in both litres and gallons. The large signs on the garage fore-court usually show the price in litres. There is some variation in price between different suppliers, Jet being among the cheaper brands. Motorway service stations tend to be more expensive than other garages.

Motorway service stations always sell petrol and are invariably open 24 hours a day. Garages on other roads may have restricted opening hours. Self- service is usual. Depending on the type of garage, you may have to leave your car (lock it first) and walk into a shop to pay or drive past a booth where you pay on the way out. If you want your windscreen cleaned or the oil topped up you will usually have to do this yourself.

Drinking and driving

Don't! The penalties are severe. It is illegal to drive or to be in control of a vehicle (this can include sitting in the driving seat at the side of the road with the engine switched off) if the level of alcohol in your blood exceeds 80 milligrammes per 100 ml of blood. If you are breathalysed by a Police Officer and found to have more than 35 microgrammes of alcohol per 100 ml of breath you will be arrested. For an average adult male, these limits are likely to be exceeded after consuming approximately two pints of ordinary strength beer. As individuals' metabolisms vary and as many beers on sale in

the UK are of above average strength it is safer not to consume alcohol at all if you intend to drive.

If the Police stop you and ask for a breath sample you have to give one. The penalty for non-compliance is the same as for having had too much to drink. (They have to have reasonable suspicion that you've committed an offence before they stop you but they can easily find an excuse.)


On-street parking is usually restricted within towns and cities. Parking is forbidden where there are double yellow lines at the edge of the road. Where there is either a single yellow line or a dotted one check the signs on the lampposts to see what the restrictions are (this will commonly be 'no parking between 06:00 and 18:00'). Some roads will have parking meters. Check the instructions carefully as they do vary from place to place as well as from town to town. Many large towns and cities now clamp (Denver Boot?) vehicles which exceed parking limits.

Pedestrian crossings

These are sometimes referred to as zebra crossings. Some pedestrian crossings just have black and white stripes on the road. Others have traffic lights as well. Where there are no lights, the rule is that drivers don't have to stop until and unless a pedestrian steps onto the crossing. Where there are lights, drivers must stop if either the lights are amber and someone is already on the crossing or if the lights are red. The pedestrian will usually be shown a green man when it is safe to cross. However, the lights only give pedestrians enough time to get about two thirds of the way across the road unless they are Olympic athletes.

There is no law preventing pedestrians crossing the road wherever they like so watch out for people all along a road not just at the corners. (Pedestrians aren't allowed on motorways.)

The Highway Code

The Highway Code, available in all good UK book stores and many newsagents, provides a summary of UK traffic law and has pictures of all the road signs in use in Britain (many of which are also used throughout the EU). It is an official government publication.


Excellent route maps are obtainable from many motorway service stations and garage fore-court shops. The AA, the RAC and Rand McNally produce some of the best. The AA does a large format paperback edition (roughly A3 size) which is available in Little Chef restaurants, amongst other places, price under GBP 5.00. If you want a map that shows every road, however small, then you need an Ordnance Survey map. There are hundreds of these each covering a small area of England, Wales or Scotland. They can also be purchased at motorway service stations. Bear in mind though that they are not issued every year so unless the map has been revised recently it will not show new motorways. You need a 1995 route map to be certain of knowing where the major roads are.

Hire cars

Hire cars are graded accorded to size. However, the size of a typical car within each group is likely to be smaller than in the US. A good rule of thumb is to assume that the cars within each group are going to be of a similar size to those in the next group down in the US eg group B in the UK is broadly equivalent to group A in the US. If in doubt, ask about this when you book and/or specify the number of people and the amount of luggage you require the car to hold. Air-conditioning is unusual in the UK so remember to specify it if you require it. However, you probably won't need it and bear in mind a car with air conditioning is likely to be more expensive to hire than one without.

Margaret Austin

16 March 1995