UK Driving Survival Guide

If you’ve read my post about how weird the language is here, wait until you hear how weird the driving is here.

Yes, it’s on the opposite side of the road. That’s weird. A bit hard to get used to, even when you’re just the passenger in the car. But it’s not just being on the other side of the road that’s different, and honestly, being on the other side of the road is the easiest thing about driving here… So here’s a post all about my driving experiences here in the UK.

First thing’s first: know the road lingo here. I talked about British English being strange in another post, but here’s some specific UK driving terms:

hood – bonnet
trunk – boot
windshield – windscreen
fender – bumper or wing
tire – tyre
blinker – indicator
parking lot – car park
rental – car hire
standard – manual
station wagon – estate car
RV – caravan
truck – lorry
curb – kerb
median – central reservation
four way stop – crossroads
divided highway – dual carriageway
highway – motorway
ramp – slip road
intersection – road junction
crosswalk – pedestrian crossing
yield – give way
pass – overtake
sidewalk – pavement
gas station – petrol station
rest area – service station or a lay-by
learner’s permit – provisional licence
DUI – drink driving

On to the actual driving bit. Firstly, the road signs are different. I mean, not all of them. But there are a lot of signs that I didn’t understand when I first moved.

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You see, the blue circle with 30 on it doesn’t mean the speed limit is 30mph, it means 30mph is the minimum speed permitted. The single black diagonal line means that a “National Speed Limit Applies” (ie, 60mph on single highways, 70mph on divided highways); why they don’t just put the actual speed limit signs up… who knows?

These are just two of many, many signs of which I had never seen before. It’s good to know that circular signs are giving orders, triangular signs are giving warnings, and rectangular signs are giving information. For more information on signs, check out the UK government site.

There’s lots of lines on the road. Zig-zag lines even. And there’s all different colours, too. I’ll explain these in a bit.

Pedestrians hardly ever have the right of way. And yes, I’ve been one of those idiot pedestrians that drivers hate, many times… I’ve narrowly avoided being hit by cars on multiple occasions. I’m from Canada, okay? We look out for our pedestrians and give them crosswalks everywhere!

You hardly ever see actual stop signs here. The roads just kind of, end… and coming to an intersection doesn’t mean there has to be a stop sign or yield sign like it does in Canada.

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Note the lack of stop or yield sign, and zig-zag lines leading to the crosswalk

There’s as many roundabouts in England as there are pubs. (I may have just made that up but honestly I’ve spent more time in roundabouts than pubs in England, I’m sad to admit.) Make sure you know which lane you need to be in before you enter the roundabout – get in your lane, and stay in it. Luckily they’re well marked so you should be able to easily tell which lane you need… in most cases, anyway. Also, give way to the right. Remember to keep left, and look right.

Right on red is NOT a rule over here. In Canada, go ahead and turn right when the light’s red and it’s clear sailing. In England, don’t attempt it. Of course, it would be the equivalent of turning left on a red light in Canada, but don’t attempt to turn left on red here either. Your best be is just don’t move your car until the light turns green.

The sequence of lights is different here. Lights turn from red to green in Canada, and from green to amber to red. Not in England. Amber lights come on before turning red, and before turning green. So when you’re stopped at a red light and it turns to amber, you’re good to put your rig in gear and get moving.

Parallel parking is a free for all. By that I mean, you can park any which way you please. Boot to boot, bonnet to bonnet… Whatever suits your fancy. Which translates to, park facing whichever damn way suits you at the time. It looks weird. Very unorganized. The inner OCD in me hates British parallel parking.

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My first time in a car here was actually on my second day in England, when Ashley picked me up and took me house hunting. I was actually more scared being a passenger in her car than I was with anyone back home. Which is saying something, ’cause I’ve been flying down back woods roads in Crown Vic’s with my brother behind the wheel, so take me seriously when I say it was quite traumatizing.

Being on the left hand side of the car in the front seat will automatically make anyone from Canada want to control the car. Or maybe that’s just me. But anyway, I had an unbelievably hard time stopping myself from stomping my feet on the floor trying to hit brakes that weren’t there. This also made me realize I could never be a driving instructor. I do not trust other drivers at all.

But back to the story. She was weaving in and out of traffic and switching lanes without looking and not stopping at the ends of streets (although in her defense, like I said, you hardly ever see stop signs in this country), while I tried not to look at the road ahead of us and picture how many ways I could die on my second day here.

So, to distract myself a bit/understand what the hell she was doing, I kept asking questions about driving here, because it was just so bizarre compared to home. It reminded me of driving in the Caribbean, where your tour guides do whatever they please and cut off other people, and can’t see what’s coming but just give ‘er anyway.

My first question was what the hell are those zig-zagged lines on the street? She told me they lead up to humped zebra crossings or pelican crossings. And so my next question obviously was, what in the name of Jesus is a humped zebra and why do you need crossings for them and pelicans???

These are some of the rare pedestrian crossings where pedestrians actually have the right of way. If they are humped it means the actual crossing is level with the sidewalk, so for drivers it’s almost like going over a wide speed bump. Zebra crossing just means that it’s got black and white stripes signalling the crosswalk. A pelican crossing differs in that it is controlled by lights, so pedestrians can actually press the button to change the traffic lights to red. Pelican crossings tend to be in intersections, and at roundabouts, for instance, where zebra crossings aren’t.

Another fun crosswalk term is a toucan crossing. Wonder why it’s called that? Well friends, it’s because two can cross. No, not just two people. It means that both bicycles and pedestrians can use it, so they’re typically wider than other crossings also.

So back to the zig-zag lines. They indicate that one of these crazy crossings is coming up. And you also cannot stop here for any reason other than pedestrians are using the crossing. So, don’t park here.

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Zig-zag lines leading to a pelican crossing

My next question for Ashley was what the difference between a single yellow line and double yellow line was. She said, oh, the single yellow means you shouldn’t park there. You can, but not for long. So I said, and the double yellow? To which she responded, oh, you shouldn’t park there either. You can, but again, not for long. Okay, perfect. That makes total sense.

We came up to a stretch of road where there was a single red line. What was her explanation of it? You guessed it, oh, you really shouldn’t park there. Except, you can… just not for long. Okay lady, you’re telling me these lines all mean the same thing. Don’t park there, but feel free to as long as you’re not there for a while. Right.

So here’s the real rules.

Single yellow line: parking or waiting at the side of the road here is prohibited at certain times of the day, indicated by signs. You can stop to load, and pick up or drop off passengers.

Double yellow line: indicates no parking or waiting at any time.

Single red line: no parking or waiting, including dropping off or picking up passengers, between the times shown.

Double red line: no parking or unloading at any time.

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Evidently, I don’t have a lot of pictures of the roads/lines here, but you get the gist of this picture.

There’s a bunch of other lines too, but that’s the basics. My best advice in regards to parking is to just go for a lot where you pay & display. Generally, most supermarkets and retail parks have free parking, but it tends to be only for a maximum of two hours.

In most cities, you’ll find that you can pay for parking with your mobile phone. The parking ticket machine will have information on it about how to do this, but once you’ve signed up for it, it’s much more convenient. It saves you desperately digging for the right change for the machine, and in most cases it will also text you when you have ten minutes left before your parking expires. This also means that you can extend your parking without actually returning to your car.

So anyway, Ashley clearly wasn’t the best person to give me driving tips. Alas, I am still here so obviously I survived. But I must say, it made me terrified to drive over here. It took me nearly four months to actually get behind the wheel myself, when my parents came to visit me. There were so many places I wanted to show them that I had to break down and rent a car and pretend that I knew what I was doing. Sorry Mom and Dad, I may have seemed calm but I was having heart palpitations. But hey, we all survived so thanks for trusting me enough to get in the car with me!

Which brings me to my next point about driving in England.

Country roads in England are way scarier than city streets. The roads are so narrow you can barely fit a Fiesta and a motorcycle side by side in some places. I thought for sure I was on a one way street so many times, just because the road was barely wider than my car. But no, they’re two-way. And you just pray you don’t meet anything bigger than a bicycle.

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Two-way country road

Mom’s actually got a great video of me driving us through Winnant’s Pass, with sheep jumping out in front of us and me thanking God I didn’t have a car bigger than a Fiesta. Pictures really don’t do these roads justice, though. You really have to see it for yourself.

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Winnant’s Pass – note the sheep I managed to not hit with my car

The speed limit on these tiny little back roads tends to be 40-50mph too. I’ll admit I have a pretty heavy foot in Canada, but not on these roads. My first time going to the Peak District with my parents, I don’t think I went over 30mph the whole time. And it felt like I was flying.

Be warned, though, fellow heavy-footers, speed restrictions are heavily enforced in the UK. The limits are similar to Canada; 60mph (96km/h) on single highways, and 70mph (112km/h) on divided highways. But there are speed cameras everywhere, and they are moved quite often so you don’t know where they are. You will see a lot of Mercs and BMWs doing 100+mph in fast lane, but I don’t suggest you follow suit. Too many cameras and unmarked police cars to risk the fine and penalty points.

That being said… Speed limits vary. You may be cruising along the motorway at 70mph, then suddenly have to slow down to 40mph, then a mile later, back up to 60mph. When traffic volumes increase, motorways lower the speed limits to smooth congestion and keep you moving. So, when you’re on the motorway and see a digital sign up above with a number in a red circle, slow down to that speed. If these signs show a red X, that means that lane is closed. Don’t use it.

If you’ve lived in Canada, you’re probably used to nice, wide roads with plenty of space, and drivers giving you plenty of room. Which means you’ll be just as annoyed when you first start driving over here as I was. UK drivers love to tailgate and are pretty aggressive drivers. The Brits may be pretty friendly people out of vehicles, but put them behind the wheel and suddenly, they’re all aggressive and whipping into other lanes and right on your ass… It’s a bit stressful for us Canadians who were taught to always follow the two-second rule, and keep at least a car-length behind the vehicle in front of you.

You’ll frequently find yourself with little-to-no road space. This may be simply because the road is so narrow, but in a lot of cases, it’s because of obstacles like roadworks, or parked cars in the way. You’ll find that most drivers will either use hand signals and wave you through the gaps, or flash their lights to signal you to come through.

You’ll also find that there are hardly any places to pull over here. Hard shoulders aren’t super common, and the rare time you see them, they’re only to be used as a last resort, in an emergency. They are opened up when there’s high volumes of traffic, however, as an extra lane to keep traffic moving. Out in the countryside, there will be lots of places where you will want to stop and take pictures, but there’s often nowhere to pull over. In fact, there’s often a rock wall or a house or some sort of building just inches from the edge of the pavement. Get used to driving as close to the yellow line as possible.

Don’t expect to find gas stations at any exit off the highway. In Canada, you can typically take most exits off the highway and find a gas station fairly close to the highway. Not in England. Here, they have services, which are stops with petrol stations, toilets, and coffee shops. Some are bigger than others, with more variety of restaurants and shops, but at the very least they’ll have these three necessities. They’re quite handy, and tend to be pretty clean and organized.

After almost a year here, and many rental cars later, I am pretty comfortable driving in this foreign land. And am proud to say I have not once tried to drive on the right hand side of the road here. However, embarrassingly enough, I have accidentally driven on the left side of the road at home. For just a minute, until my brother casually reminded me, you’re on the wrong side of the road, by the way. Thank goodness it was in Hants County at night with nobody else around. 🙈

Side note: If you move to the UK from Canada, you can exchange your licence to a British one after living here for over 185 days. Your Canadian licence is only valid for up to a year here though, so if you don’t exchange your licence before a year is up, your licence won’t be valid here and you’ll have to take the test to get your provisional licence and go through that whole process instead.

You’ll need to show proof you took your test in a standard if you want to drive stick here, too. The Brits are weird and have two different licences… an automatic licence, where you can only drive automatic, and a manual, where you can drive both. If you don’t have proof you took your test in a manual, your licence will just be an automatic licence.

So, my main points to take from this post are:

  1. Slow your roll. Speed cameras are everywhere over here, and it’s not just a fine – you get penalty points on your licence too. Follow the limits of 60mph on single-carriageway roads, and 70mph on dual-carriageways and motorways.
  2. Get used to roundabouts. There’s oodles and oodles of roundabouts in this country, and you don’t want to be stuck in the wrong lane when you use them. Pay attention to the signs and know which lane you need to be in before you enter the roundabout.
  3. Make sure you understand the parking rules. Honestly, your best bet is to pay for parking in a lot rather than try to figure out street parking. But good luck to you if you do try the “you shouldn’t park there… you can, but not for long” advice.
  4. Be prepared to be very close to other cars. And buildings. And rock walls. And, well, basically everything. Whether it be because of the narrow roads, or cars parked on the side of narrow roads, or just the aggressiveness of the UK drivers… be very aware of your very close surroundings at all times.
  5. Research road signs. The Highway Code is a necessary read for anyone planning on driving over here, and knowing what the different signs mean is essential.

That’s all I’ve got on driving over here. So now you know the Brits don’t just talk weird, their highway rules are completely whacky too. How my Canadian licence can just transfer to a British one… I’ll never understand. But best of luck to my fellow Canadians in the UK!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Anonymous says:

    Lol the deep breathing and shaky hands with the nervous giggle kind of gave you away on your first time driving. We thoroughly enjoyed our trips with you behind the wheel! Looking forward to it again soon! Love your blog and you!

    Like

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