I’m not a faint-hearted driver. I drove a cab for five years. I’ve backed down two-way roads that weren’t much wider than my car and where the land fell away on both sides. But the first time I drove in Britain left me with white knuckles—and some bits of advice.
Drive on the Left
This isn’t the hard part. If you’re in traffic, the other cars will keep you where you belong. All you have to do is look for headlights (illuminated or off—it doesn’t matter) and remember that they mark the front of the car. This means that if you’re looking at headlights and they’re in your lane, you need to be on the other side. Quickly. But the odds of this happening are surprisingly small.
Figure out Where Your Car Ends
This is the hard part, because you’ll be driving around with half a car on the side where you don’t expect it. If you’re on a motorway, start in the slow lane and cozy up to the white line that marks the edge of the shoulder. (If you’re American, the shoulder will be narrower than you’re used to.) This line will be marked with cats’ eyes, and your tires will rumble on them. Do this a few times and you’ll get a feel for the left-hand edge of your car.
Never drive in London
This is not just because of the traffic, and not just because of the congestion charge, but because even streets that run in a straight line (and there aren’t many) change names whenever the whim takes them. Driving will take your full attention. Even if you have a navigator, you don’t want to be crying out for directions (“Do I turn here? Left? Right? Hard right or the other one? Hurry!”) while you’re trying not to hit anything. Besides, public transportation in London will take you anywhere you want to go. It’s crowded, yes, but it’s great all the same.
Consider Driving a Two-Person Job at First
One person turns the wheel, steps on the pedals, and does all the usual stuff. The other person reads the map and says, “I don’t know. Can you circle the roundabout again?” and “You’re too close on this side,” with escalating degrees of panic. Make an agreement beforehand: Nothing either of you says in the car can be held against the other person afterwards.
Consider the Possibility That the Passenger Is Right
When your passenger says, “you’re too close on this side,” they may or may not be right. To an American, the lanes will seem insanely narrow, and skimming along that close to a hedge/a wall/a house/the next lane of traffic is enough to scare the driver’s license right out of a passenger’s wallet, but that doesn’t mean the car really is too close.. On the other hand, your passenger may be right. You need to consider that possibility—along with its opposite.
Don’t Drive Any Faster Than Feels Safe
On a two-lane road, with a line of traffic building up behind you, it’s hard not to think you should press down on the gas, if for no better reason than to defend the reputation of foreign visitors. Resist the impulse and don’t drive any faster than you’re comfortable with. Every so often, you’ll see a lay-by—a place where you can pull off the road safely. Just pull in and let everyone behind you pass, then start out again and build up a new line of followers. And if you’re feeling bad about it, remind yourself that you’ll hold them up for longer if you have a wreck.
Don’t Panic In Roundabouts
All traffic circles to the left and unless the roundabout has traffic lights everyone yields to cars coming from the right—in other words, to cars that are already in the roundabout. If you find more than one lane in the approach, and unless the lanes are marked otherwise, the left lane is for the exits less than 180 degrees from the entry lane(s); the lane on the right is for exits beyond that. Going into a roundabout, if someone signals a left-hand turn, they’re taking the first exit. If someone signals a right-hand turn, they’re taking an exit that’s more than 180 degrees from then entry lane(s). Cars already in the roundabout will signal a left as they come up on their exit. Probably. In my experience, signalling in and before roundabouts is fairly random and you shouldn’t bet your fenders on it.
Don’t Expect Stop Signs
You won’t find them at intersections or roundabouts. The signal that you have to yield or stop is a white line painted across your lane. If you’re used to seeing stop signs, this is too subtle to be much help. On our early trips, my partner and I had an agreement that whoever was navigating would yell, “Yield!” when we approached one.
Watch for Pedestrian Crossings
These fall into several categories: zebra, puffin, toucan, and pelican. That’s a completely useless bit of local knowledge, but it’s so weird I had to include it. Some of those crossings are marked by traffic lights, and they’re obvious. If the light’s red, you stop. Whatever you do, don’t hit the pedestrians. The less obvious crossings are the ones marked by painted white stripes across the street and flashing amber lights on the curbs. (These are the zebra crossings, in case you’re interested.) The pedestrian has the right of way here, so if someone’s approaching the curb you need to hit the brakes.
Parking Is Almost Never Free
Signs limiting when and where you can park aren’t easy to spot at first. I grew up in a world of parking meters, and when I didn’t see any I thought I could park anywhere. Expensive mistake. Look for signs on poles. Look for signs on the buildings. Put your pride in your pocket and ask someone. Once you get used to them, the signs are obvious enough, but until then they’re invisible. And if you see a sign pointing to a car park (that’s a parking lot if you’re American), follow it. Find a space and then look for another sign explaining when and how to pay, because some want you to buy your ticket first and leave it in the car and some want you to insert your ticket and your money in a machine on the way out, then insert the ticket again to lift the barrier. Once in a great while, you’ll find a free car park, but don’t count on it.
And one bonus tip: The hand that’s waving in mid-air, trying to grab the seatbelt? It’s the wrong one. The seatbelt’s on the other side.
But it’s all do-able. Worry just enough, but not too much.
Ellen Hawley invites you to check out her blog at www.notesfromtheuk.com. Her novel The Divorce Diet will be released in the U.S. in January.