Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Holiday Post 1 - Driving in the U.K. : A Yank on the Left


The first photo shows us beaming as we turned in our car hire at Heathrow without having to pay the damage deductible.

I would say that the Brits are good drivers and they know how to maneuver. My fear was that I would zig when they expected me to zag.

If you are a Yank driving in the U.K. for the first time, I recommend:

  • Automatic transmission - I don't care how skilled you are in the U.S. there will be Many times when you don't want to be fumbling for the gear shift.

  • Get something small. That large car might be great leaving the airport on the motorways but wait until you move on to the A and B roads, driving between hedgerows, and town and village driving.

  • A GPS might be something to get with the car hire. We spent a lot of time trying to find a place to turn around after missing a turn. This is harder to do than you might think.

  • If you are going to do a lot of country driving, invest in good maps. That Michelin map of Great Britain & Ireland you purchased in the U.S. is great for getting an idea of distances but won't work on a smaller scale. Fortunately someone left a road atlas at the car hire and they loaned it to us. Even that wasn't detailed enough at times.

  • Someone in the front passenger seat is quite helpful. I found it difficult to judge distances on the left when driving in towns and villages. The streets are narrow and you are usually driving past parked cars while facing fast moving traffic that appears to be occupying the same lane as you.

  • Have a mobile phone. Seriously. Check with your service at home to see the available options.

  • Look up road signs and driving rules before you go over. There are many good web sites including this one for a brief overview. Just do a google search for UK driving

  • I thought about this after but I wonder if someone driving in the U.K. for the first time could get a New Driver magnetic sign for the back of the car? I saw one of these on several cars.

  • See if Jason Statham (the Transporter) is available as a driver.


The week I spend driving in the U.K. was the most intense experience I have ever had behind the wheel. Once you get off the motorways (equivalent to our interstate highways) you find yourself on small, often very twisty roads with blind curves that would be adequate for a Mini Cooper but are bi-directional and driven by all size vehicles including buses, delivery vans, Land Rovers, etc.

My first experience with intense town driving was in Bovey Tracey on the way to Dartmoor. Due to a missed turn I found myself driving through town center - one lane, vehicles parked on the right, bi-directional traffic, vans, buses, other cars including Land rovers. The traffic flow almost seemed choreographed with cars shifting right and left in an instantaneous judgement of who needed to give way to an oncoming vehicle. Also very polite, you get a nice wave when you have yielded. No place for competitive, "I gotta get there first", driving.

Once we made it to Dartmoor we found ourselves driving between very high hedgerows on a single lane road with blind curves and no idea if there was an oncoming car. Occasionally there would be a 1.5 foot widening so that you can pull over to let someone by but there are times when a driver has to reverse to give way. But it works and I can't say I was ever close to a head-on.

The U.K. has, roughly, a trillion roundabouts, maybe a trillion five, some within yards of each other. I learned to love the roundabout. Sometimes the signs within the roundabout would be different than the diagram on the sign leading into the roundabout which made it interesting to figure out which road to take. The Brits, as I observed, know when to yield and traffic generally flowed smoothly in and out.

While filled with anxiety and tension, driving was an interesting part of the experience of being in the U.K. and I won't hesitate to hire a car on our next trip.

5 comments:

Semi Dweller said...

As a Brit whose driven a lot in the US I liked this. My first US experience involved trying to find my way out of JFK and head north towards Saratoga Springs in a Ford Explorer (supposedly an upgrade from the ordered Mustang) sans GPS. Suffice to say when I ended up navigating my way through central Manhattan I worked out things had gone a bit off course!

All this notwithstanding it's sometimes too easy to overstress the driving differences. I've found once you're out of the cities a lot of American driving is pretty similar to equivalent parts of the UK - the Adirondacks are just like Deeside in Scotland, Route 1 in CA is still more scary than anything I've done over here, and taking the Jefferson Davis Parkway down into VA is a lot like the British A road experience - and then once you get off around the Chesapeake it's just like a B road!

No roundabouts of course - but you get your own back with incomprehensible four way stops!

Glad you survived though - come back again soon - we may be a small country but I like to think the driving (and overall visiting experience) still offers a lot.

Mack said...

Hi Semi
Thanks for the comment.

Depending on time of day, I expect that Central Manhattan might be like Central London, neither one of which I want to drive through.

Having driven the A1 in CA I'll take it over the A & B roads anytime. Still, you have a good point about not overstressing the differences. I was impressed at how well it worked in the UK and I would trade the four way stops for roundabouts anytime assuming Americans can learn to yield. Around where I live, yield means speed up.

I think what you call Jefferson Davis Parkway, I know as highway 1. You're right, it can be like an A road but without the hedgerows.

My biggest hurtle was getting over the startle reflex, the tendency to pull left when a lorry or bus came hurtling toward me around a bend.

It was a good experience and driving the country roads of the UK is quite lovely.

Semi Dweller said...

As far as CA goes it's horses for courses. I did it in what I must now sadly call"a traditional American 4x4 SUV" (don't get me started on rental companies) - doing it in something fun an European, or indeed one of the more engaging American cars, might well transform matters.

In VA I'm afraid my Rand McNally is sitting upstairs in the study and I'm down here ensconced with a BBC Wallander in the background but you might well be right about the route numbers. It's a great road though isn't it? Did it mid October last year in the early morning heading back to Dulles with the top down (in a Sebring, but one does what one can) and it was a pleasingly engaging experience.

Oh - and by the way - I still flinch at times when a ridiculous vehicle comes at me over here - that never really goes away... Just smile and figure they probably know better. I've yet to be hit by a truck driver here.

Bernadette in Australia said...

Good tips Mack. I'd had my driving license for all of 3 weeks when I first traveled to the US for my brother's wedding and had to unexpectedly drive a manual transmission sports car on the wrong side (for me anyway) of the Los Angeles freeways after my future sister-in-law twisted her ankle while we were out shopping. Ever since that sink or swim experience (which all survived thank heavens) I have found driving to be a piece of cake. Even when I had to reverse my way around the entire Scottish countryside. Or do peak hour in Jerusalem traffic (probably the most terrifying thing I've had to do so far in life).

Mack said...

Thanks for the comment Bernadette. With Semi ending up in central Manhattan in a Ford Explorer and you on the LA Freeway in a manual transmission sports car, my experiences seem a bit tame.

My first driving tip should have been, a la Douglas Adams, "Don't Panic".

The next time Marilyn and I head over we want to spend some time in Wales and Scotland and I'm looking forward to driving.