Although it’s a national sport to grumble about it, there’s a fairly good public transport system throughout the UK. But, by necessity, for convenience, or simply to get to otherwise hard-to-reach parts of the country, lots of international students will drive themselves from A to B during their time in the UK. So, what’s it like on the ‘wrong’ side of the road?! Here’s our quick guide to driving in the UK…
The big difference for most people is that the UK drives on the left (although this will be a familiar situation if you come from Australia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Singapore, South Africa, Thailand and around 50 other countries). Bear in mind that driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road takes a bit of getting used to. And it’s important not to take your eye off the road (as it were) as lots of accidents involving international drivers happen a few days after people have started driving in the UK. Obviously, driving on the left means you give way to the right at junctions and roundabouts.
Another big difference, especially if you’re from the USA or Canada, is that most cars will have a manual gear stick rather than automatic. If you hire a car and don’t want to change the gears yourself, you may have to pay extra for an automatic vehicle. (In general, hiring a car is expensive in the UK – you may get a better deal if you ask friends or family to book for you at home as some car hire companies offer lower prices on overseas reservations.)
UK road signs display distances and speed limits in miles and miles per hour (mph), so don’t get mixed up if you’re used to working with kilometres (or kilometers!) and kilometres per hour (km/h). Speed limits vary on UK roads. In built-up neighbourhoods, a limit of 30mph is standard. Lower limits may apply in some local areas (often with additional ‘traffic calming’ measures such as speed bumps) and main roads in and out of towns and cities may have limits of 40mph or 50mph. A white circle with a black diagonal stripe (from right to left) is the sign for the UK’s National Speed Limit – 60mph on a single carriageway and 70mph on a dual carriageway (a road with a barrier or other division between the opposing directions of traffic).
The motorway (the UK equivalent of the freeway) is usually the best way to travel longer distances quickly. Remember that the speed limit on motorways is 70mph (although you’ll see plenty of drivers who have apparently forgotten!). Drive in the left lane unless you're overtaking another vehicle and only overtake on the right. Except for a section of the M6 motorway north of Birmingham, UK motorways do not have tolls and are free to use (although there may be tolls to cross some bridges or pass through some tunnels). If you haven’t visited a UK motorway service station, don’t expect anything glamorous! Motorway services are quite functional and offer the chance to take a break, have a meal or snack, and fill up your car with fuel.
A red light means stop! With no exceptions - the UK has no ‘left on red’ system (equivalent to the ‘right on red’ system). There may be a left filter lane at junctions with traffic lights but this will have its own signal – a green arrow for go. Pedestrian crossings are clearly marked. There are no traffic lights requiring you to stop at ‘zebra crossings’ (with black and white road markings) but, if you see people waiting at a zebra crossing, it’s considered common courtesy to stop and allow them to cross the road.
Parking in the UK isn’t always easy and it can be expensive. Get it wrong and it can be very expensive if you have to pay a fine or pay a fee to have a wheel clamp removed - or even to reclaim a vehicle towed away by the authorities. Lots of towns and cities have metered street parking and ‘Pay and Display’ ticket systems. In some cities and larger towns, you can pay for street parking using a mobile phone. Streets marked with a single yellow line have different parking restrictions at different times of the day – check signs for details. A double yellow line means no parking at any time of the day. In designated car parks, including multi-storey car parks, there may be a ‘Pay and Display’ ticket system or you may get a ticket at a barrier entrance. Most supermarket and shop car parks are free for customers.
Above all else, make sure you stay safe on the road. Don’t drink alcohol and drive, or drive on drugs. Don’t use mobile phones while driving. Drivers and passengers must wear their seat belts – it’s the law. If you’re driving a motorcycle or moped you must wear a safety helmet – again, it’s the law. And take extra care driving in the winter when road conditions can be more dangerous.
Happy driving, everbody! Beep beep’m, beep beep, yeah!
We’ve got lots more information on driving in the UK for international students, including the legal requirements for you and your vehicle and where to find further information.