Tips for driving in Britain

Many visitors who in their home country drive on the right-hand side of the road can find driving on the left in Britain a daunting task, but with a little insider information, and by following a few golden rules, they usually get by unscathed.

It’s worth mentioning that, surprisingly, more people in the world drive on the left than on the right. We are often asked in fun, “Why don’t you change over to make life easier,” but the reply is always, “Why don’t you change over to conform with the majority?!”

Official government figures show accidents involving visitors to Britain who are not used to driving on the left occur either on the day of arrival, when people are tired and jet lagged, or during the latter part of their visit when they become more relaxed and complacent.

Every country has its lousy drivers, but, in general, British drivers are extremely regimented in their driving and are very courteous to other road users. For example, apart from in the large cities where an “everyone for himself” attitude seems to exist, drivers do not force their way into lines of traffic but wait “to be invited” by other motorists, who always oblige. When this courtesy is extended, a “wave and a smile” in acknowledgement should always be given.

In Britain, learners or inexperienced drivers each display a white square with a red letter “L” or “P” on their vehicles, which lets other drivers know their status. In consequence, other road users tend to treat vehicles displaying the L or P with caution. Experienced drivers are much more forgiving and courteous toward L- or P-plate drivers should they make an error.

Overseas visitors are encouraged to buy a pair of the L or P plates (available at most filling stations) and display them on their hire vehicle for “extra protection.” There is nothing “sissy” about driving a car with these plates shown, but I’ve often heard people say, “I’m not going to pretend I’m inexperienced. I’ve driven in my country for over 40 years without an accident.” This is a very shortsighted attitude, because having the L or P plates could save their lives.

Roundabouts are an excellent idea, but they can prove daunting to visitors who are not aware of the rules. Styles vary from a simple painted circle on the road surface to large structures with concrete, grass or flowerbeds, but they all do the same job, which is to keep traffic moving.

The rule is you give way to traffic coming from the right, but, my having said that, if you have adequate time to pull out safely and without inconveniencing other motorists, you may do so. Nothing is worse for the British driver than to be held up at a roundabout behind a visiting driver who is “dithering” or unnecessarily waiting to give way.

It is also essential when approaching a roundabout to indicate to other motorists which exit you are taking. One well-known travel writer once said, “Roundabouts are great because if you don’t know which route to take, you just go around again and again until your navigator has sorted which exit to take.” This is ridiculous and dangerous advice. Not only is it an extremely dangerous practice, it causes frustration for other road users.

If you miss your exit or are not sure where to go, carry on over the roundabout, then stop and reconsider your position. It is better to have to turn around and go back than be involved in accident.

One other related topic — and this goes for hiring of cars all over Britain, Ireland and Europe — some hire companies identify their vehicles with a sticker displayed in the front windshield or back window (or both). One well-known company has a yellow circle with a black numeral printed, and another has a green square with white wavy lines. If your hire car has these or any other form of identification, remove it immediately (you will not be penalized for this). The sticker (or other identification) makes your vehicle a prime target for thieves, who will break in to see what pickings can be found.

Even if you remove all your possessions from the vehicle, the hassle you go through putting the car right or getting a replacement can be considerable and traumatic. It is far better to “reduce the odds” by removing the hire car identification in the first place.

And remember, never leave valuables in the car or anything on show that can indicate to the cunning crook that you are a visitor or tourist.

Some of the following hints may seem just common sense, but you would be surprised how many ignore these suggestions, either through ignorance or because they think they know better.

• If possible, avoid renting your vehicle on your day of arrival. Also, arrange to pick up your car at a “less busy” location. (If you can arrange it to be on a Sunday, even better!)

• There is no “proceed on red” rule for turning right or left in Britain. Red always means stop. There are no exceptions.

• Take extreme care at roundabouts, and do not treat a roundabout as a merry-go-round.

• Treat yourself to a pair of red “L” or “P” plates and stick them on your hire car. (They are easily removable when you hand the car in.)

• Well in advance of junctions and especially at roundabouts, always indicate your intention to turn.

• Always acknowledge other drivers who show you courtesy on the road. (In Britain, you do not have to avoid eye contact with other road users for fear of being shot!)

• If you are driving at a more leisurely pace and a queue of traffic forms behind you, pull over regularly to allow other motorists to pass.

• Consider your safety and the safety of others when stopping to check maps or take photographs. If possible, use a “lay-by” (parking space) or pull well off the road, out of harm’s way.

• Take extra care to keep to the left when driving on British roads, especially on roads without a center white line. (Visitors regularly drift to the right, then panic when faced with an oncoming vehicle.)

If you want to be one step ahead with your driving before arriving in Britain, obtain and study thoroughly a copy of Britain’s guide for road users called “The Highway Code.” This small pocketbook costs £1.49 (about $2.60), and you can buy it online at Those without e-mail can contact the Department for Transport, Ashdown House, 123 Victoria St., London SW1E 6DE, U.K.; phone (from North America) 011 44 207 944 8300 or fax 011 44 207 944 6589.

If you are extremely concerned at the thought of driving yourself on the left but do not relish joining a large group bus tour, consider using the services of one of the “car with driver” operators who advertise in ITN’s MART.

ANTON PROLE, Principal, Midway Motor Travel, Corsham, Wiltshire, England