Driving in the UK
I would classify my husband as a great driver. He handles busy freeways, driving a manual, maneuvering through mountain passes, and parallel parking with ease.
And now, driving in the United Kingdom!
HOWEVER, it would not be an exaggeration to say that driving in the UK stressed Chris out. In fact, we were driving along one afternoon and had to laugh when the song “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones began to play on the radio. The words “you make a grown man cry” were quite appropriate to what he had been feeling as he began driving in the United Kingdom!
And it wasn’t driving on the left side of the road or the main freeways or even all of the roundabouts that was stressful. It was the ONE LANE country roads or village streets that were meant for two lanes of traffic!
But First, United Kingdom, Great Britain, the British Isles, England? What is the Difference?
If you are like me and wonder when you should use United Kingdom vs. Great Britain vs. Britain vs. England, you are not alone. So let me break it down for you.
The United Kingdom (UK)
Did you know that the UK is short for The United Kingdom of Great Britain and North Ireland? As a sovereign state (much the same as the United States of America is made up of states united together), the UK is made up of four united countries: England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.
Great Britain (aka Britain)
Great Britain is a landmass not a country. It has the designation of “Great” because it is the largest island within the British Isles. When referring to Great Britain, you are referring to England, Scotland and Wales.
Specifically, Great Britain is the name of the island east of Ireland and northwest of France.
British, then, references anything from Great Britain, meaning anyone who lives in Scotland, Wales or England. They are considered British (but also Scottish, Welsh, or English).
The British Isles
When referring to the British Isles, you are referring to the grouping of islands off of mainland Europe: Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales), Ireland, The Isles of Scilly, The Channel Island (Guernsey, Jersey, Sark, and Alderney), The Isle of Man plus over 6,000 smaller islands.
“England” is the largest country within the United Kingdom. It is referred to as a country, the same as Wales and Scotland, but it is not a sovereign state.
If you use “England” as a term to refer to all of the United Kingdom, that would not be correct. England is simply a country within the United Kingdom.
Is the United Kingdom part of Europe?
As far as I understand it, geographically the United Kingdom is part of the continent of Europe but it is not part of the European Union (EU).
To differentiate further, the European Union is not the same as the continent of Europe. The EU refers to the partnership of 28 nations from the continent of Europe. With this collaboration, these countries are able to function together with their trade, travel, and immigration and use the Euro as their common currency (for the most part).
Clear? Try to remember it this way: the United Kingdom (or the UK) is the country, Great Britain is the island, and England is one of the United Kingdom’s four administrative regions. Referenced from Babbel.com
Why Do UK Drivers Drive on the Left Side of the Road?
Have you ever wondered why the United Kingdom drivers drive on the left? (You’ll also find left side of the road driving in India, Indonesia, Ireland, Malta, Cyprus, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and Samoa.)
Here’s a bit of a history lesson.
The reason why drivers in the United Kingdom drive on the left side of the road has a historical background. It goes back to the time when men carried swords and rode horses and had the need to keep their sword-hand free and closer to their opponent (making the assumption that most people were right handed).
It was also easier to mount and dismount their horses on the left side of the horse.
In the Middle Ages, as you were traveling by horseback and came upon a stranger, you did not know if they would be friend or foe. In such cases, keeping your sword-hand free was essential.
The “keep to the left” rule even dates back to Roman times when Romans drove their carts and wagons on the left side of the road for similar reasons; Roman soldiers even marched on the left side of the road.
What happened if soldiers or drivers were left-handed? Well, they had to make do. Perhaps they practiced to be proficient with their right hand.
In the 1700s in France, Canada and the United States, larger wagons began to gain popularity and were often characterized as having no driver’s seat and being drawn by several pairs of horses. The driver would sit on the horse at the back left to have greater control over the horses and to keep his whip-hand free. This made it difficult to see on-coming traffic.
Perhaps having Napolean as a ruler influenced the changes as well for many European countries. He was left-handed.
The first “keep-to-the-right” law was passed in Pennsylvania in 1792, with many Canadian and US states following suit later.
“When Henry Ford unveiled his Model T in 1908, the driver’s seat was on the left, meaning that cars would have to drive on the right-hand side of the road to allow front and back passengers to exit the car onto the curb. According to National Geographic, this influenced a change in many countries: Canada, Italy, and Spain changed to right-side driving in the 1920s and most of Eastern Europe followed suit in the 1930s.” Reader’s Digest
However, in Britain, these massive wagons were not popularized and the smaller British wagons and vehicles used for transport still had seats for the driver to sit on behind the horses. In this case, the driver would sit to the right of the seat so his whip hand was free.
Driving on the left side of the road in the United Kingdom continues today.
I will add, that many of the vehicles in the UK are still small as well to accommodate the narrow roads and passageways through towns and villages.
13 Tips for Driving in the United Kingdom as an American
If you have the occasion to drive in the United Kingdom as an American and want to know the differences between driving in the UK vs the US, let me share a few tips with you.
1. Can You Drive in the UK as an American?
Yes, but you must have a valid driver’s license from the United States.
You do not need to have an International Driver’s License, but Travel Experts would agree that isn’t a bad idea either.
You DO need car insurance while driving, so make sure you know what is offered through your own insurance or your credit card. If you come up wanting, be sure to have the insurance through the rental company.
2. Be Informed and Safe
It would be advised that you spend a little time learning the rules of the road for driving in the UK. Even simple things like signage are different. In many places, road signs signal on coming changes. In the UK, many of the road signs are actually painted on the road. It is important to “read the paint”.
3. Manual vs. Automatic
In general, most of the cars available to rent in the United States come with automatic transmissions. The opposite is true in the United Kingdom. If you do not know how to drive a manual, you would do well to suck it up and pay the extra costs for an automatic transmission (if you are lucky enough to find that option).
Driving in the United Kingdom is NOT the place for you to learn how to drive a stick.
You may be happy to find that the pedal layout is the same. Whew. It may be a bit of a trick to learn to shift with your left hand and still manage the turn signal though.
4. Drive on the Left Side of the Road from the Right Side of the Car
Obviously, if you climb into your car on the left side while planning to drive in the United Kingdom, you won’t get too far. It may take a few days before coming around to the right side becomes second nature.
But, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER forget to drive on the left side of the road.
5. Opt for the Smaller Car
If given the choice, choose the smaller car. There is a reason why so many of the cars on the road in the United Kingdom are small:
- Gas is much more expensive in Europe
- You will encounter narrow streets within cities, towns and villages and along rural roads. Smaller cars make it much easier to maneuver through these streets
- Parallel parking is a thing. A smaller car makes it much easier to park
- You may encounter more affordable car rental fees, parking fees, and insurance
- It will be significantly easier to pull over and pass an oncoming car on narrow roads
6. Pass (or Overtake) on the Right
This is especially true on the freeways. You never pass (or undertake) on the left side. If you do, you may face a hefty fine. And when you do move to the right to pass, be sure to move back into the far left lane once you have finished passing. Cars don’t “hang out” in all lanes of traffic.
7. Be Alert on Single Track Roads
Many of the roads in rural areas are only wide enough for only one vehicle at a time. They are specified as “single track” roads.
What it means is that traffic goes both ways on the road. And many of these roads are lined with tall hedgerows on either side. Add in some blind corners and hilly roads and you will need to be on full alert.
Pay attention to oncoming traffic.
To allow two vehicles to safely pass each other, there are clearly (and maybe not always clearly) marked passing places. If you see an oncoming car and a passing place, pull over.
These are the roads that stressed my husband out. As we were driving to Dartmoor National Park, Google Maps directed us onto these one lane roads.
Chris stopped, backed up, and looked for another entrance to the park with wider roads. “Surely this can’t be the road it means for me to take!”
Surely it can.
You may find yourself hugging the left side of the road to allow a car to pass and hoping that the branches from the hedgerows aren’t damaging the paint of your rental car!
8. Who has the Right of Way on a Single Track Road?
Think common sense and politeness. There is no law that specifies who has the right away in the middle of a small village or on a single track road (except you should give way to vehicles driving uphill when possible). However, if you are driving a small car and encounter a lorry (similar to a semi but narrower for obvious reasons), bus, or work vehicle, chances are they will take the right of way. After all, they are bigger.
This leads into the next tip.
9. There is No Shame in Backing Up
This was the advice my husband received in Chagford as we drove through the village with impossibly narrow roads, oncoming traffic, and cars parallel parked along the road and sometimes on the sidewalk.
If you are watching the traffic and see cars coming your way within a village, pull over where you can. If not, you may find yourself backing up quite a distance.
10. Give a Little Wave
This is not only a friendly gesture where all people wave to each other as they pass, it is a matter of politeness. When you pull over for another car on a small winding road (and they might just be going 60 mph!), they will often wave to say “thank you.”
11. Speed Limits are in MPH
Did you know that speed limits are posted in miles per hour and not kilometers per hour? Why? Since everything else in England is measured with the metric system, it does not seem to make sense that the speed limit is MPH.
12. Be Brave
Well, you might just have to take a deep breath and simply drive. After a couple of days, you’ll begin to get the hang of driving in the United Kingdom.
13. Do YOUR Due Diligence
Obviously, these aren’t ALL of the rules of the road. Take time to learn signage, speed limits, road markings, etc. before you attempt to drive in the United Kingdom.
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Final Thoughts on What Americans Should Know When Driving in the UK
Prior to arriving in England, our family had the intention of leaving on a cruise for Norway from Southampton, England. It was not even in our plans to be driving. However, have you ever heard the saying, “The best laid plans…”?
As we were taking our proctored Covid tests prior to boarding our cruise, one of our girls tested positive for Covid. Suddenly, our plans changed. We were denied boarding for our cruise and two of our girls decided to fly home so they wouldn’t get sick and be stuck in the UK and miss work.
Chris and I and our youngest were scheduled to fly home the following Sunday and made plans to spend the next week exploring the Cotswolds and staying in the cutest little cottage in Fairford while she recuperated. It was a quick change of plans.
My husband spent a couple hours the night before renting a car studying the rules and laws of driving in the United Kingdom. It was definitely a “crash” course and many prayers were offered up so that there wouldn’t be any crashes during our stay.
But those narrow roads, they were enough to stress us both out! If you are an American and plan to drive in the United Kingdom, be prepared.