Top Tips for Driving in the UK and Ireland

If you are used to driving on the right, driving on the left in the UK and Ireland is less daunting than you might imagine. Brave it and a whole world of touring possibilities will open up to you.

You are not alone in having concerns about driving in Britain and Ireland. But thousands of visitors do it happily and safely every year. These driving tips and pointers should help you get behind the wheel without too many wobblies.

Ease Into It

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If you've never driven in the UK before, don't plan to pick up a car at the airport and dive straight onto a motorway heading for a major city. Take a train to your first, out of town, destination and adjust to driving on the left along quieter, emptier roads first. Build up your confidence on country and secondary roads, before trying high-speed motorways and big city centers.

And don't let locals, barreling along on narrow country roads intimidate you. Take your time and, if necessary, pull to the side of the road when you can to let faster, more impatient drivers pass you. 

Ask for an Automatic

Automatic gear shift
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When renting a car in the UK, make sure to ask for an automatic transmission if you are more comfortable driving one. UK drivers usually learn to drive a standard transmission (called a manual transmission) first and most rental cars are manual. Unless you ask for an automatic when you book your car, you may end up with a stick shift you can't drive.

An even better idea, to save yourself some money, take a lesson or two in a standard shift car before your trip. Renting cars with standard transmissions is almost always the cheaper option.

Watch Out for U-Turners

UK No U-Turn sign
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Drivers are allowed to execute a U-turn or 3-point-turn on any UK road where it can be safely done and it is not expressly forbidden. Don't be surprised if you see a driver hold up four lanes of traffic to make a U-turn. Taxi drivers are especially​ fearless about this.

Don't try it if you see a sign like the one pictured here - a circle, outlined in red, with an upside down "U" crossed with a red line. It means that no U-turns are allowed.

Go With the Flow

cars in London Snow
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You'll often see cars parked on what looks like the wrong side of the street, facing oncoming traffic. In the UK that's legal and drivers will often cross the road to grab a space. Don't be tempted to emulate them. If you aren't used to driving on the left, you may forget later and pull out into oncoming traffic.

Stay Cool

The street is ours
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The most interesting and scenic roads in Britain are often the smallest. It's possible to get stuck behind an elderly country couple, tootling along at 25 mph, or a tractor hauling a load of hay and going even slower. Don't get hot under the collar and try to pass impulsively. It's safer to be patient and wait until you have a clear, long view of the road ahead. It's amazing how fast oncoming traffic moves when you are trying to pass a tractor.

Back Off and "Lay By"

Mountain road in Great Orme, Llandudno, North Wales
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Very small country roads, barely one car wide, are common in rural Britain. They're known as "single track" roads and may or may not be signposted as such.

When driving on such roads, watch out for small, sometimes paved, areas, just big enough for one vehicle, where you can pull over to let an oncoming car pass you. These are called lay-bys -- which is descriptive of what they are for. They are not hard shoulders and they are not rest-stops intended for longer parking. They are simply places to pull into on a two-way road that is only wide enough for one car.

Sometimes the other driver will pull over to let you pass, sometimes whoever is nearest to the lay-by may have to back up into it. If a driver pulls aside to let you pass, make sure you acknowledge the courtesy with a wave of thanks.

Mind the Hedgerows

Thatched cottage in Wiltshire
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Throughout the English countryside, hedgerows are used instead of fences to divide fields. They are tall, dense combinations of shrubs, vines, and small trees, all twisted together and impenetrable. On narrow roads, they can prevent you from seeing what's immediately ahead. I once came face to face with eight cows who had escaped from a field! If the hedgerow blocks your view on a tight curve, take it slow and sound your horn. At night, flash your high beams so any oncoming car is aware of you.

Watch Your Speed

Speed camera sign UK
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On motorways, the speed limit is usually 70mph, but on country roads, it slows down to 40 or 50mph. And once you enter a village, a city center or a built-up residential area, the speed limit is never more than 30mph and may be posted for 20 miles an hour or less. Be careful about this because all over the UK, town centers are now armed with speed cameras that catch the unwary. If you see a yellow or white sign with a picture of a camera on it, a digital speed camera will be watching you within about 200 yards.

Pay and Display

Sea gull on a car park sign
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Most villages now have Pay and Display parking lots to prevent congestion on the narrow, old streets and lanes. The cost is minimal -- for 40 to 50 pence an hour you get a paper parking slip to display on your dashboard. You can park on streets with single yellow lines after parking restrictions are lifted - usually after 6 pm but often later in busy town centers and cities, so look for signs. Double lines - red, yellow or sometimes white - are always a no-no.

Look Out for Zebras

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A zebra is a pedestrian crossing. Once a pedestrian steps off the curb onto a zebra crossing, you must stop and remain stopped until the pedestrian has finished crossing and has stepped back onto the sidewalk. Zebras (the "e" is pronounced like the first "e" in ever) consist of white stripes painted on the road. They are further marked by striped poles, on each end, topped with ball-shaped yellow lights. Usually, they also have spotlights aimed at the stripes on the road.

You've probably already seen a zebra crossing. The famous Abbey Road Crossing, on the cover of the Beatles' Abbey Road album is a zebra - and it's still a popular magnet for tourist photos. Most settled areas will have one or more zebra crossings, near shops, schools, businesses, and churches.

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