Driving in the UK and Ireland
Some of our readers and clients are apprehensive about the idea of driving in the U.K. or Ireland. For many of us Americans, the number one challenge is the part where we’re driving on totally the wrong side of the road. By which I mean, Americans drive on the right side – which is the wrong side. (This goes for any country previously controlled or influenced the old British Empire, including Ireland, Australia, India, New Zealand, Japan, parts of Africa.)
A close second challenge is driving on extremely narrow roads, which is among the many reasons that we like to rent as small a car as possible.
We found that one good solution to the driving-on-the-left issue is spending the extra money (it’s now as much as a couple of hundred dollars more for a week) for a rental car that has automatic transmission. (When you book your car, be sure to request an automatic specifically, and do so as far in advance as possible.)
While we love driving a little 5-speed car on the back roads of Italy, driving an automatic in England enables the driver to devote more attention to driving on the left side of the road from the right side of the car.
It isn’t too hard to get used to it, though, and here’s why: Being the driver on the right side of the car, in fact, is a constant reminder of the opposite-ness of the whole experience.
So, for right turns you must yield to the oncoming traffic (rather than for left turns as elsewhere); it’s the left turns, then, are the easier ones to make. Note, however, that there is no equivalent of “right on red” in the U.K. (it would be left on red there). A red light is a red light, period.
Get to know the car first
When you get in the vehicle at the rental place, take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the instruments. Make sure you know where everything is – turn signals, headlights & brights, hazard lights, wipers/washer, defroster, mirror controls, hood and fuel tank releases, windows, locks, climate control. Make sure everything is adjusted before you pull out of the lot, so that you don’t waste brain-power fumbling for buttons or switches once you get rolling.
Engage your co-pilot
Unless you’re traveling solo, make your companion in the front seat part of the driving crew. The “co-pilot” can help navigate, check maps, look for signs, hand you toll money, and tell you when you’re a little too close to that hedgerow or curb.
As in other parts of Europe, roundabouts or traffic circles are common here in place of large stop-light intersections. Remember that here the traffic flows in the opposite direction – from right to left, or clockwise. Approach the circle, look right and bear left, yielding to cars already in the circle. As in other parts of Europe, you’ll look for the signs directing you to your next destination, and you can signal your exit from the circle. Don’t be afraid (or ashamed) to go around the circle an extra time or three, if you’re uncertain which road to take from the circle. The only people who will notice you doing that are doing it themselves.
A note on navigating: You’ll see many directional/distance signs (at a circle or crossroads) directing you to the various towns in the area. Follow the signs to your destination; but also know what towns are near or beyond your destination, for those intersections when you don’t see your town. When in doubt, if you stop seeing your sign, try to just go straight, or as straight as the road allows. If you are going from point “A” to point “M” (with points “N” thru “Z” beyond “M”), you might not always see signs for “M”, but you can follow signs to D, G, H, and L on the way to M. Also know that you might see signs to P or Q; if you follow those, the road will likely take you to M first.
Narrow lanes and hedgerows
Once you’ve mastered the idea of mirror-image driving, the next biggest challenge of driving in the U.K. is the extremely narrow country roads. The country has a wide network of perfectly navigable roads, highways, and motorways (the equivalent of Interstates in the U.S., but remember the fast passing lanes are to the right, not the left) which are quite comfortable to drive. But when you work your way into more remote areas, as we love to do, the roads are reduced in size considerably, in some cases to a single car-width. You’ll often find yourself in the “hedgerows”; that is, a road on which your side mirrors are almost brushing against tall hedges on either side. These are not one-way roads, either – you must find a way to share with oncoming traffic.
How do you do this, when there’s only room for one? Well, the designers of these roads were thoughtful: As many of these roads are very straight for a long way, you can see an oncoming car from a good distance. Between you and that car you see coming your way, you will almost always find one or two little lay-by spaces or a brief widening of the road, where one of you can move over sufficiently for both cars to pass, though just barely. (You may have to pull your side mirrors in to make the clearance.)
Who yields, then, and moves over? It depends on where exactly the space is, but as a gesture of courtesy, you should choose to be the one to yield. (Don’t forget to pull to the left, not to the right!) It’s likely that the oncoming driver, though, will beat you to it if possible (especially if they’re a local), and will either wave you on or flash their lights. Approach carefully and slowly, and give a little wave of thanks to show your appreciation of their kindness and patience.
Driving on these kinds of roads can be stressful, but remember: The residents drive these hedgerow roads all the time, and problems or accidents in these areas are very rare, thanks to courtesy and common sense. You can rely on the locals to know what to do. Try to embrace to feeling of driving through these beautiful lanes; it is the hedgerows, in fact, that give the English countryside such a distinctive beauty and a timeless feel.
Also, watch out for cows. And sheep.