Driving in England

The English love McD's

The English love McD’s

You have seen the sign “Baby On Board.” I believe when an American rents a car in England, it should come with a placard “Foreign Tourist on Board.”

“You have a 3800,” said the woman at the counter. “What’s that?” I asked. “A po sjo” she said which I realized must be the correct pronunciation of Peugeot, which I had Americanized to poo jo. I rented a standard transmission in England in 1976. This time I chose an automatic: I didn’t need the extra distraction of shifting gears with my left hand.

Rugby's 2-way streets are wide.

Rugby’s 2-way streets are wide.

Staying to the left wasn’t a big problem even if I did flinch a couple times. But I pride myself on my situational awareness. I have developed the unconscious habit of regularly checking my mirrors to be aware of other drivers. It took me a while to understand why I was initially uncomfortable in England – the mirrors weren’t where my muscle memory said they should be.

Alie pointed out I had trouble knowing where the left side of the car was – she was sure I was going to hit something. Nonetheless I managed to get around Southampton where we rented the car and out onto the main roads without too much difficulty. It would have been easier if we had given our GPS adequate time to download the United Kingdom maps. It kept trying to take us to places in the U.S.

National speed limit: 60mph

National speed limit: 60mph

Space in England is at a premium. In Salisbury, we had our first encounter with something that I never did get completely used to: they have a free-form attitude to lanes and parking. They start with what we would call a one-lane street, park cars on it going in either direction and drive it as a two-way street. In some cases, a lane would be half-filled with a parked car. I finally decided the etiquette of the road gave the right of way to the guy with the most space on his side.

By English standards, the Peugeot was a big car. Fortunately it had power mirrors that folded in when in tight spots – for example, two-way traffic on a one-lane road so narrow I had to drive up on the verge to avoid the on-coming car – or just getting back the alley to my parking spot at the hotel.

A wide spot on the way to Upper Slaughter

A wide spot on the way to Upper Slaughter

The narrow lanes created another problem. Usually the four-lane divided motorways (M1, M6 etc.) and most four-lane divided “A” (“dual carriage”) roads had lanes of a reasonable width. But even some of these and most ordinary country roads were much narrower than those found in the U.S. Compounding the problem, the normal (“national”) speed limit unless otherwise marked was 60 miles an hour. That’s sixty miles an hour down a narrow winding back country road facing an occasional truck that was on both sides of the road.

Some of the motorways have chevrons painted on the pavement and signs with the admonition to keep a safe distance, keep two chevrons apart (about two seconds at 60 mph). Nonetheless, we came to the conclusion that most Brits felt it meant “keep two cars between each set of chevrons.” They almost consistently drove at what we would regard unsafe spacing if not actual tailgating (which they also did a lot of the time).

No place to take a picture except through the window

No place to take a picture except through the window

Another thing that bothered me was the speed limit on a dual carriage road was usually 60 or 70 but it seemed like every mile or so, one came to a traffic circle where you had to give way to anyone already on the circle.

The circles themselves were a challenge because sometimes the left lane was for the first exit, sometimes for the second and sometimes one could go the entire way around. Get in the wrong lane, and you leave an annoyed Englishman when you try to go where you want to be.

Strange pavement markings

Strange pavement markings

At some points on the motorways, overhead electronic signs proclaim “variable speed limits” by which the traffic engineers can adjust the speed of the cars in the event of accidents or congestion. I never did figure out how it worked or was supposed to work. In my experience, it just seemed like the frequent shifts in speed just created congestion, sometimes even bringing cars to a complete halt.

Having listed all these “complaints,” the English do have several things I admire. For instance, when two motor ways merge, the merging traffic is often kept on two or even three separate lanes which have long runs to get up to speed and merge separately one after another, a much safer system than on most U.S. Interstates.

Another 2-way street

Another 2-way street

But my favorite rule was keep left, pass right only. And one can be fined for driving slowly in the right lane or passing on the left (which they call “undertaking” as opposed to “overtaking” on the right.)

Germany and a few states like Pennsylvania have similar rules – although outside England the rule is “keep right, pass left only.” This not only promotes the flow of traffic, it helps reduce accidents caused by unexpected lane changing. I wish more states had the rule.

Traffic lights in the U.K. go from green to yellow to red as in the U.S. and also from red to yellow to green. The yellow light before green is short and many U.K. drivers start when they see it. In the U.S., I think they would be hit by someone running a red light.

Just a nice town

Just a nice town

Many Americans adamantly oppose cameras at traffic intersections to catch red-light runners. In England, there are frequent cameras even around the smallest towns. They not only catch speeders, they also catch drivers breaking other rules such as driving in a bus lane. Because I was new to their roads, I tried to stay a mile or so below the speed limits (and frequently much lower on back roads) but I guess it will be a few weeks before we know if I picked up a ticket for an unintentional violation.

The Rose And Crown

The Rose And Crown

There were a few honked horns on circles during our stay, and I’m sure there was more than one annoyed driver. However, we survived. And even though lost and frustrated in Salisbury, I managed to find the “Rose and Crown,” a 13th century inn which we loved in 1976 and loved again in 2013.


About ralietravels

Ray and Alie (Ralie) are a retired couple who love to travel. Even during our working years, we squeezed a trip in whenever we could, often when we had to stretch the budget to do so. We have been fortunate to vacation in all 50 states, all the provinces of Canada and one territory and a little more than 50 countries. We like to drive, but we particularly love to travel back roads to find unusual sights, people, and experiences.
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