Driving on the wrong other side of the road

While we wait for more definite news to confirm or deny our move to England, I’ll be posting some of the insights I gathered during our 2-week stay across the pond.  First up – how difficult is it to drive on the other side of the road?

First of all, don’t get all “ugly American” on me and to the UK and use the phrase “the wrong side of the road”.  The English are sensitive when foriegners come to their country and imply thtat their way of driving is “wrong”.  In fact, there are good reasons why 25% of the world drives on the left.  In feudal society, the entire world road their horses on the left.  This was to enable a swordsman to have his right arm closer to his opponent if he had to use his weapon while riding.  Yep, ancient drive-by shootings!  In France after the revolution, aristocrats began trying to blend in with the commoners by walking on the peasant’s side of the road – the right – and risk being recognized and losing their head.   And in the American British colonies, our ancestors primarily drove on the left like the mother country until we gained our independence from England and changed to right-sided driving.  Yep, the newly-formed USA had a bit of a ‘tude, even in its infancy.

And can you imagine switching 25% of the world over to the other side of the road?  How would that go exactly?  With modern-day heavy traffic being what it is, the whole ordeal would have to be synchronized to the second.  And let’s not even think of the cost of the thing – road signs, replacing interchanges, and the necessary press to get the word out.

Not to mention the idiot drivers that might not take easily to the change.  Like…errr…me, for instance.

I wasn’t worried about driving until we were at the airport and I decided it would be a good idea to take advantage of PDX’s free wi-fi to check on UK driving laws, road signs and whatnot.  Sure, I know what a yellow light means.  But a yellow light at the same time as a red?  Intimidating.

I must admit, it was a bit harder to drive on the left side than I had envisioned.  Once the novelty of getting used to the steering wheel being on the “passenger side” of the car wore off, I noticed I was white-knuckling it.  First up, just getting your car to stay in your lane is harder than it seems.  It was easy to misjudge how wide my car was, especially on the left side, because I wasn’t used to sitting on the left-hand side of the car.  My left tires slid off the road a few times until I realized that I was trying to align the car by looking at the left painted stripe on the road.  That stripe would have marked the middle of the road back home, but here it was on the outside and far away from where I was sitting.  Once switched to aligning the car by looking at the center line, which was now on my right, I was golden.


It didn’t take too long to get used to being on the left.  Since everything was the opposite side of what I was used to (steering wheel, road signs, etc.) my mind easily flipped the entire plane of driving existance around to be the mirror image of what I was used to dealing with.  The only problem?  When my brain did this, it also managed to flip-flop my right and left.  Therefore, when the GPS navigation voice told me to take a right turn, I’d turn left.  I had to resort to my grade-school trick of looking at which hand’s thumb and forefinger made an “L” to verify which was my left hand.

HedgerowI need to mention here that roads in England are narrow.  I’m talking no-thanks-I’ll-just-have-two-diet-pills-and-a-salad-leaf-for-lunch-then-purge-later skinny.  Often, at least in Somerset, there is a hedgerow or stone wall bordering one or both sides of the road.  There is no shoulder where you could pull over – just an occasional small dip in the mud every mile or so.  On an A-road (a primary 2-lane road), lanes are so skinny that there is only about a foot or two of extra space when two cars are side-by side.  And when two cars pass each other going opposite directions, as an American not used to such close traffic, my first instinct was to break and cringe, bracing for impact. 

There are good reasons, other than gas conservation, that British cars are so tiny.

And that is the MAIN ROAD.  On side streets, most are one-lane only.  This means that if you meet another car, one of you must a) pull over to let the other pass if you are lucky enough that there is room; or b) back up until you can find a spot to pull over. 

In Nether Stowey, a charming period village (read: very narrow, one lane streets flanked by historic stone walls on each side, designed for horses and not cars), I met a lorry (truck) coming my way.  Of course, I had been driving up a steep hill where the road had curved.  Since the truck was large, it was my job to find a place to turn out to let the driver pass.  My first instinct?  To back up looking over the wrong shoulder, making it near impossible to get a decent perspective.  After failing at that, I tried to turn into a driveway.  This meneuver required a good 30-point turn and its only effect was to lodge me almost sideways in the road.  After a good 5 minutes, the poor truck driver took pity on me, easily pulling over and letting me pass.  Our side mirrors had a bit of a handshake, then I was off again.

Here are some basic tips I found useful for driving in the UK:

  • if you are an American, you can drive on your valid US driver’s license if you are 17.
  • familiarize yourself with road signs and markings before you leave by reading the Highway Code online.
  • fuel in the UK is expensive – about 87 pence a liter at present (that’s $6.45 per US gallon).  Public transportation is plentiful.  Check train, bus and tube schedules and prices.
  • don’t even bother attempting to drive in London.  There is a high tax to do so, and it is crazy scary.  Take the tube – it goes virtually everywhere.
  • on the motorway, there are usually three lanes.  The first is for going just above the speed limit.  The second is for going fast.  The third is designated reckless driver lane.  Read: 110 miles per hour or so)
  • to align your car to the center of your lane, “sight your car in” by aglining the center line of the road with your right windshield wiper’s pivot point.
  • roundabouts go clockwise in the UK – not counterclockwise as in America.
  • you do not have to stop at a roundabout unless there is traffic where you’ll be pulling out.
  • when approaching a roundabout where you’ll  be taking the first “exit”, signal left and get in the left lane.  If you won’t be taking the first exit, signal right and get in the right hand lane.
  • when in a roundabout, signal left when you are going to take your “exit”.
  • learn the art of backing before you go.
  • when on a one-lane road, pull over for oncoming traffic if there is a place to do so.  Chances are if you can then the other driver can’t.
  • look over your right shoulder to back up.
  • pay close attention to “right” and “left”.  Your brain might try and switch them on you amidst all the confusion.
  • rent the smallest car you can get away with.
  • it is a good idea to rent an automatic if at all possible.
  • rent a car with a GPS or buy a TomTom.  Roads are very curvy and your inner-compass will be off for a while.  You’ll have enough to think about and won’t want to be wrestling with a paper map.
  • before you get to the gas station, find out if your rental car is diesel or petrol.  Hint: Petrol is the green nozzle.  Just like in the US, a diesel nozzle will not fit into a petrol car.
  • you do not have to pre-pay at the gas stations in the UK.

And if you make a mistake, don’t sweat it.  English people may stare in a dignifed sort of way, but they rarely honk!  (I managed to earn a couple anyway.)


3 Responses to “Driving on the <strike>wrong</strike> other side of the road”

  1. 1 Jen January 8, 2007 at 5:05 pm

    Also…another thing that I read on was that if you are going over to the UK to live, your license is only good for a year after you enter, so then it would be required of you to get a UK license. I dont know how long you guys plan on living out there, but that might be something worth reading up on.:-p

    Im moving out there in July, so UK license is kinda on my mind.:-S

  2. 2 Kyles' Review Blog November 21, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    My buddy went and he said the people like warshipped him though. But unfortunetly our money is not worth much there :/

  1. 1 Roadworks at All that comes with it Trackback on March 24, 2007 at 3:59 am

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