As the homeland of well-known luxury car brands like Rolls Royce and Bentley, driving is unsurprisingly a fairly popular way of getting around the United Kingdom. While major cities like London are a nightmare to drive in and best explored using public transport, many small towns and scenic rural areas are best explored by car.
Differing from most of Europe, the United Kingdom drives on the left, and all cars rented or sold in the UK are right-hand drive. Most cars in the UK are manual ("stick-shift") transmission, and car rental companies will allocate you a manual transmission car unless you specifically ask for an automatic when you make a reservation.
A car will get you pretty much anywhere in the UK. Parking is a problem in large cities, and especially in London, can be very expensive. Petrol (gasoline) is heavily taxed and therefore expensive - though more or less in the same range as continental Europe, currently a bit over £1 per litre. The cheapest fuel is usually available at supermarkets. Branches of Tesco, Sainsburys, Morrisons and Asda tend to have fuel stations in their car parks, which are often cheaper than the big name fuel stations like Esso/Exxon, Shell and BP.
Along with the United States, the United Kingdom continues to use some imperial measurements for road signage. As a result all distances are displayed in miles and yards, whilst speeds are given in miles-per-hour (mph). Distances can be roughly converted to kilometres with 1/3 mile as about 500 m, 2/3 as about 1 km, and 1/2 mile as about 800 m. All other European countries use the metric system, so be aware of the required conversions when travelling from elsewhere.
Despite this use of the imperial system, many heights and widths are displayed alongside their metric equivalents. All weights are given in tonnes and all motorways now have locator indicators in kilometres situated at intervals of 500 m. Nearly all roads in the UK are toll-free, the exceptions being few major bridges/tunnels, and one motorway in the Midlands which are clearly signposted. Be aware that the Dartford tunnel and bridge are toll roads but do not have booths and is not well signed; payment must be made on the website (car plate is scanned) within a couple of days otherwise you get a large fine in the post later. There is a levy (congestion charge) of £8 payable for driving in central London.
Traffic can be very heavy, especially during 'rush hour', when commuters are on their way to and from work - typically 07:00-10:00 and 16:00-19:00. School holidays can make a noticeable reduction in traffic, however, particularly in the morning rush hour.
The M25 London orbital motorway is notorious (known to most Londoners as London's car park because all the traffic comes to a standstill) - it is best avoided on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons; use it only if you need to, and take local advice if you plan to drive to Heathrow to catch a plane. The M6 through Birmingham is another traffic blackspot as well as the M8 in Glasgow (the second most congested motorway after the M25). You can typically bet on finding a traffic jam if you drive for more than 90 minutes on the motorway system, especially as you approach cities. Checking local traffic reports on the radio or websites such as Highways Agency or Frixo can help if you know you need to travel during busy hours.
Parking on-street is usually heavily restricted. Never park on a white, double yellow or double red line. Even stopping on white or red lines is illegal. Parking on a single-yellow line is restricted (typically no-parking during the daytime, e.g. 7AM-7PM) and the restrictions are displayed on roadside yellow signs. Many residential streets require a resident's parking permit to park on the street, although outer-suburbs have fewer restrictions. On-street parking in cities may be restricted to disability-badge holders or be heavily metered, and is often for no more than a 1–2 hours stay in the daytime but is often free at night. Surface lots generally operate the pay 'n' display payment system - you must buy a ticket from a vending machine, select how many hours you wish to pay and then place the ticket on your dashboard in clear view - these places are regularly patrolled and if you don't return to your car before the allotted time you'll get a penalty or get clamped (but you can only be fined one a day if your vehicle does not move). Often you'll need to enter the numeric digits from your car's number plate when buying the ticket to prevent people from 'selling on' tickets with leftover time. Multi-storeys are usually multi-level buildings or in larger cities may be located underground. Most have barrier-controls - you'll be issued with a ticket upon entry. When returning to your vehicle you must either pay at a 'pay station' (a self-service terminal inside the car park's lobby) in which you insert the ticket and pay the required amount - the ticket will be given back to you and you must insert it into the slot at the exit barrier (although some will have scanned your license plate on entry and the barrier will open automatically on exit if you have paid) ; or alternatively you will pay a cashier at the exit barrier - it'll normally explain the payment process on the ticket. Parking charges vary from less than 50p per hour in small towns to over £4 an hour in the largest cities. Many larger cities have digital displays on the approach roads indicating how many parking spaces are available in each car park.
Many cities operate a "Park and Ride" scheme, with car parks on the edge of the city and cheap buses into the city centre, and you should consider using them. In major cities (particularly London, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and Birmingham) it is usually a much better option to park on the outskirts and take public transport to the centre. This not only saves money on parking and fuel but also saves a lot of time as heavy traffic, twisty one way systems, and limited parking space causes long delays.
In any town, expect regular bus services between the centre, suburbs and nearby villages, and less frequent services to more rural areas. London also has the largest mass-transit system in the world - the London Underground and an extensive overground system and bus network too. London, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Blackpool have trams covering parts of those cities. Outside of London, Liverpool has the most extensive metro system (Merseyrail), spanning from several stations in the city centre to those in the outer suburbs. Newcastle has a similar network. Greater Manchester also has an extensive local train network in addition to its expanding metro system. Glasgow has a small underground rail system in the centre and a local train network. In some cities buses can be slow moving due to traffic congestion.
Structure of the UK road network (and route numbering)
The UK road network is a multi-tier system, with Motorways at the highest tier, moving down through trunk, primary and secondary routes, all the way down to what amount to little more than (un)paved lanes in remote rural areas.
The top tiers of the UK road network are comprehensively numbered, these numbers taking precedence on signs. British roads are signed on a route-based rather than destination oriented basis. Therefore, before setting out on a long journey, plan the route you are going to take and note the road numbers you will need to follow. It is very unusual to see destinations, signed more than about 50 mi (80 k) in advance. Generally, UK route signs are excellent and should be very easy to follow. Road numbers are indicated by a letter and a number as in the rest of Europe and sign colours and letters are generally the same as on the rest of European routes. However, European route E numbers do not appear on signs. Whilst some minor routes have nominal numbers allocated, these are typically unsigned. From time to time the Department for Transport publishes lists of primary destinations. Apart from motorways, these destinations always appear on roadsigns with a green background.
Route numbering for non motorways is based on a zonal system, with roads inside a zone being numbered according to that zone. The zones themselves are defined radially (on London for England, and Edinburgh for Scotland). These zones also used to be linked to single digit trunk or primary routes, but this is no longer true. Also, only one route number is allocated to any one piece of highway, for example the Liverpool-Hull motorway (M62) is signposted as the M60 where it shares the highway with the Manchester Ring Road (M60).
There are also some route numbers which appear to be out of zone, and which need to be carefully considered in route planning. (For more detail see: Classification at SABREwiki).
The types of road are :
- Motorways (prefix 'M'- blue signs, white route numbers) are fast, long distance routes that connect the major cities. The speed limit is 70 mph/115 km/h for cars (lower for other types of vehicle) and certain vehicles, such as pedestrians, cyclists, mopeds and those operated by learner drivers are prohibited. Junctions are numbered. The motorways are the best means of travelling long distances by car, but expect delays at peak times or in poor weather.
- Most motorways have three lanes on each carriageway although some have more, and some less used ones have only two. If there are three or more lanes, trucks and vehicles towing trailers or caravans are not permitted to use the outside (right-hand) lane.
- Primary routes (prefix 'A' - green signs, yellow route numbers) connect large towns with each other and with the motorway network. Primary routes usually offer fast journey times, but because they tend to go through towns rather than around them, expect delays at peak times. They can vary from roads of near-motorway quality (such as much of the A1 from London to Edinburgh, the A38 from Exeter to Plymouth or the A55 from Chester to Holyhead) to narrow single lane roads in remote areas.
- Secondary routes (prefix 'A' - white signs, black route numbers) connect smaller towns, interchangeable with B roads.
- B-roads (prefix 'B' - white signs, black route numbers) are the larger of the back roads.
- Minor routes (white signs, black named destinations) like country lanes or residential streets.
A route number followed by (M) means upgraded to motorway standard - for example A3(M) means part of the route A3 that has been upgraded to motorway.
A route number in brackets means 'leading to' - for example A507 (M1) means you can reach the M1 by following route A507.
|London, Leicester, Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds||M1 or A1-M62 OSRM|
|London, Southampton||A4 - M3 OSRM|
|London, Heathrow Airport||OSRM|
|London, Reading, Bristol, Cardiff, Swansea||M4|
|London, Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon, Birmingham||M40|
|Birmingham, Worcester, Bristol, Exeter,||M5|
|Coventry, Birmingham, Stoke on Trent, Preston, Carlisle||M6|
|Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Hull||M62|
|Maidstone, Folkestone, Eurotunnel||M20|
|London, Port of Dover||A2 OSRM|
|London, Port of Harwich||A12-A120 OSRM|
|London, Peterborough, Doncaster, York, Newcastle upon Tyne, Edinburgh||A1|
|London, Ashford, Maidstone, Folkestone, Dover||A20|
|London, National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham||M25-M40-M42 OSRM|
Planning a driving route in the UK is easier than ever with the advent of GPS and online services such as Open Street Map, Google Maps and similar.
Still, you should plan to take a paper road map with you for those times when you don't have wifi and the sat nav isn't working, as inevitably happens when you're lost on the roads of a strange country!
The Automobile Association (AA) Road Atlas series are widely considered the best of these. Other reliable brands include Collins, Michelin and the RAC. All of these brands have online route planners too (see AA route planner), though ironically the majority rely on Google to do the actual route planning for them.
Navigating on urban streets and along smaller country roads that don't appear on larger road atlases can be a special challenge, but finding the right map for the job doesn't have to be. The Geographers' A-Z Street Atlas (usually just called an "a to zed") print the best range of urban street maps, while the Ordnance Survey's (OS) Landranger series is the must-have map for rural motoring. All tourist information centres, most petrol stations, supermarkets, newsagents, and many branches of WH Smith sell regional and national road atlases, in addition to A-Z and OS maps for the local area.
Speed limits in the UK are similar to the rest of Europe. Unless otherwise indicated (see section on Signs) the following are applicable (for cars):
|Motorways and dual carriageways with a divide median||70 (115)||60 with a trailer.|
|Single Carriageways||60 (100)||Reduced to 50 (80 km/h) with a trailer.|
|Built up areas||30 (48)|
|Minor Roads (Rural)||60 (100)||Although the limit is 60 mph, it is a maximum not a recommendation.|
Speed limits for cars are 70 mph (115 km/h) on motorways and dual carriageways (i.e. roads divided by a grassy area or other hard barrier between opposing directions of traffic); 60 mph (100 km/h on single carriageway (i.e. undivided) roads; and 30 mph (50 km/h) in built-up areas unless signs show otherwise. The use of 20 mph (30 km/h) zones has become increasingly common to improve safety in areas such as those around schools. Although national limits still technically apply to minor roads and back lanes, driving for the conditions is strongly recommended. On narrow lanes of a rural nature, equestrian and agricultural traffic means that although the nominal 60 mph is in force, the 'acceptable' limit for the conditions can be considerably lower.
Speed cameras are widespread on all types of road, though more used in some areas than others (England's largest county of North Yorkshire, for example, has a policy of using no fixed enforcement cameras on its highways). Static cameras are often well signed, painted bright colours with clear markings on the road. While this might seem rather strange, the idea is to improve their public acceptance as a 'safety' measure (rather than the widely held opinion that they're there to collect money).
In addition to static cameras, traffic police in the UK use 'mobile' cameras and even 'unmarked' patrol cars to look for speeding motorists. You will also find within road works on major roads (and on the A20 approach to Dover) the use of average speed over a number of miles, rather than spot speed, cameras.
There are some variable mandatory speed limits on the M25 to the west of London (enforced by cameras, again), the M4 north of Newport and the M42 near Birmingham - these are shown on overhead gantries inside a red circle; other temporary speed limits shown on matrix boards are recommended but not mandatory. Apart from these and around roadworks, the motorways are generally free of fixed speed cameras. Perhaps as a result, many drivers drive much faster on motorways than the stated speed limit (often around 80 mph/130 km/h), although you will be prosecuted if caught. Driving at slower speeds in the outside (overtaking lane) may cause frustration to other drivers and is an offence punishable by a fine. The same applies to tailgating - driving too close to a slow-moving vehicle in front.
Speeding is punishable by an appreciable fine and penalty points on your driving licence. ( A foreign license or plate is no defence, as the UK now routinely shares information with agencies abroad.). If you are caught by a speed camera the whole process is automatic. Police rarely show any discretion in waiving a speeding fine. Very excessive speed could also in addition lead to a more serious charge of careless or dangerous driving, which carries the risk of jail time. Trying to avoid a speeding fine by claiming someone else was driving would amount to the very serious offence of attempting to pervert the course of justice, which can lead to several years in jail.
The road rules differ from other countries: side roads never have priority, overtaking on the left (so called undertaking) is illegal, and you may not turn left over a red light. There are no 4-way stop junctions in the UK; priority should be clearly marked on the road.
Be aware of zebra crossings (non light controlled pedestrian crossing) marked by black and white stripes on the road and yellow flashing lights on the pavement (side-walk). You are expected to stop if someone is crossing or waiting to cross.
There are lots of roundabouts (circular/traffic island) in the UK, from large multi-lane roundabouts at dual carriageway junctions to small mini-roundabouts on local streets. The rules for entering them are the same - you have priority over traffic that has not yet entered it, and you must give way to anybody already on the roundabout (who would collide with your right side if you entered it). Be careful of two- or three-lane roundabouts, as there are complicated rules for which lane you should be in which UK drivers learn and expect other drivers to follow. If there are no signs or arrows on the road indicating otherwise (which there often are), you should use the left lane if your turn off the roundabout is to the left or straight on, and the right lane if turning right (but switching to the left lane immediately after passing the last exit before the one you want to use, and in any case before you turn off - never 'cut up' another driver by turning straight from the outside lane of a roundabout to an exit road). So large roundabouts the inner lanes spirals out as you go round. You should be fine provided you're cautious and keep an eye on other traffic. Some roundabouts are arranged in such designs and quick sequence that they can make you dizzy. Take it easy until you get used to it. Signal your intended direction before entering the roundabout and signal when exiting.
For further information on driving in the UK, consult the Highway Code.
Driving licences are issued by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) in England, Scotland and Wales, and by the Driver & Vehicle Agency (DVA) in Northern Ireland. Licences issued by all European Union countries, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are valid in the UK until their expiry for all classes of vehicles listed. Licences issued by all other countries are valid for up to a year before you will be required to obtain a UK licence, and may only be used to drive cars and motorcycles.
Holders of licences from certain countries may exchange their licence for a UK licence after paying an administrative fee. Check with the relevant government agency for the details. Those holding licences from all other countries are required to pass theory and practical tests before they can obtain a UK licence.
(For more detail see - Know your Traffic Signs.)
The UK roads are well signed, but some signs are different from those in Europe.
In general, triangular signs are warnings, round signs are regulation (in some cases mandatory) and rectangular signs convey information.
An inverted triangle (typically) ahead of junction is a Give Way, comparative to an American style Yield.
Speed limits are given by circular signs, these give a numerical limit in mph in a red bordered sign, a white circular disc with a black diagonal indicates that the 'National' speed limit applies, which is determined by the type of road.
Note that in Wales any text on or accompanying a road sign or a road marking is normally in Welsh as well as English. The design and meaning of signs is, though, exactly the same.
|Single white line, long gap, short dashes parallel to carriageway||Lane divider on multi-lane carriageway|
|Single white line,v. short gap, long dashes parallel to carriageway||Hazard marker|
|Chevrons, with arrow direction parallel to carriageway||Do not enter roadspace.|
|Single direction, white hatching at edge of carriageway||Road narrows ahead, Do not enter.|
|Multiple yellow lines across carriageway||Slow down, a junction or roundabout is approaching!|
|Dual white lines unbroken||Do not cross!||Sometimes one side may be unbroken, and on the broken side overtaking in limited circumstances is permitted.|
|White Inverted triangle||Give Way (Yield)!|
|Yellow - 2Direction Diagonal hatching... (Yellow Box)||Box Junction, Do not enter unless your exit is clear!||This form of hatching may also be used on level crossings.|
|White arrows around a circle.||Mini Roundabout - Give Way to traffic from the right, and stay left|
|Elongated circle with numerals inside||Speed limit|
|White line parallel with carriageway and cycle picture||Cycle lane, do not enter||Typically on Left hand side. Notes :May also have red road surface.|
Driving standards are relatively good in the UK. As everywhere else, there are some aggressive or reckless drivers; but they are a small minority.
Traffic police patrol motorways and major roads in marked and unmarked cars. Any police officers, regardless of their normal duties, will pursue a vehicle seen driving dangerously. In general, police are fair but very firm when it comes to traffic offences, and are instinctively suspicious of bad or erratic driving as a sign of more serious matters like an unlicensed or drunk driver. An honest mistake, not amounting to an offence, may often lead to just some friendly advice or a warning. But they will show little or no discretion to anyone who has deliberately broken the law. British traffic offences are not greatly different from those elsewhere, but the rigour with which the police tackle some of them perhaps is.
Above all, don't drink and drive in the UK. The maximum limit is 50 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood (0.05%) in Scotland, and 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood (0.08%) everywhere else, and this is strictly enforced. Going 'over the limit' is a serious criminal offence. The police often patrol roads in cities and town centres on Friday and Saturday nights on the lookout for drink drivers, and also wait in or near pub car parks (simply getting into your car when drunk, with the intention of driving off, is an offence - even if the car doesn't move). If you fail or refuse to take the initial breath test at the roadside, police will always arrest you and take you to the police station for a further, more accurate test. If you fail or refuse to take that, you will be charged and prosecuted; and you may well be kept in police custody until you 'sober up'. Enforcement of drink driving laws is extremely strict, and anyone caught can expect no leniency from either the police or the courts. Fines are heavy (have been up to £5,000 in some cases), with a minimum driving ban of 12 months for a first offence. There is also the very real possibility of a prison sentence (such as 6 months) simply for driving 'over the limit'; the court will impose additional penalties if the driving was dangerous, and especially if anyone was hurt in an accident caused by a drunk driver. Causing death by drunk driving is treated very seriously indeed, and will lead to an extended jail term, public opinion being very strong on this issue.
Some drivers believe they can get away with just one or two drinks - a pint and a half of ordinary beer, or three small glasses of wine, will put most people on or above the limit. But doing that means you're gambling with your body's tolerance of alcohol. The simplest and safest course is not to drink anything if you're driving, or leave your car and call a taxi instead. Any pub or restaurant will be happy to call one for you, or give you the number of a local company.
Police in the UK also now routinely check for driving under the influence of drugs, and the penalties for this are also strictly enforced.
It is an offence to use your mobile phone whilst driving. That applies whether making a voice call, texting or accessing services; the only exceptions are for hands-free kits (at any time), when parked or stuck in traffic (with the engine off) or if calling the emergency services (at any time). Police will stop you for using your mobile phone and a penalty will be issued on the spot (although you pay by post; police never collect fines themselves). This fine will be accompanied with points endorsed on your licence, whatever your standard of driving at the time. If, though, your driving was erratic because you were using the phone, expect a more serious charge of careless or dangerous driving.
After any major accident it is normal for police to breathalyse all drivers and to check mobile phone records, even if there is no other evidence of anyone being drunk or using a phone. They are perfectly entitled to do so.
It is a legal requirement that all persons in a vehicle must wear their seat belt. Persons not wearing a seat belt may receive a fine, although this does not typically come with any points. If a child is not wearing a seat belt, the driver is responsible (whether or not they are also the parent) and a fine will be issued for that offence also. Children under 1.4 m are also legally required to use a child booster seat for safety reasons.
Use of fog lights where there is no fog is also an offence for which you may receive a fine.
Automatic Number Plate Recognition
Police vehicles are increasingly equipped with ANPR (automatic number plate recognition) cameras linked to a central database, which automatically alert officers to any vehicle which is uninsured, untaxed or has not passed its MOT (roadworthiness) test; or if the owner is wanted for any offence. If you trigger an ANPR camera, you will at least be stopped and questioned until the matter is resolved. There have been cases of cars hired to visitors by unscrupulous firms being caught in this way, although anyone hiring such a car would not normally be accused of doing anything wrong.
ANPR only works on British-registered vehicles. Whilst it is considered by some visitors that a foreign licence plate makes you largely immune from other means of detection like speed cameras, congestion charge cameras and Traffic (Parking) Wardens, this is a myth. If you choose to take your chances, be aware you may just hit upon the one Camera Operator/Warden who can be bothered to take the trouble to track down your address from your home licensing authority. British authorities have access to vehicle registration databases from various other countries, and share data on a regular basis. Also, British hire car companies will charge traffic fines to your credit card, long after you have left the country.
If all of this sounds harsh, it's one of the reasons why British roads are among the safest in Europe.
Drivers from abroad should take note that many British drivers regard the flashing of headlights as a signal that they can proceed, rather than as a warning, or as a signal to slow down due to the presence of police. This misunderstanding has led to a number of accidents. On the other hand, if you are 'flashed' by another driver and allowed to proceed, it's polite to acknowledge that by flashing your lights back as you pass, or waving your hand.
If you enter the UK with a left hand drive car the dip direction of the headlights need to be change. With modern "smart" lights this is a setting from the dashboard, otherwise a lens correction can be stuck over the headlights (usually sold on the car ferry you probably are travelling on).
In a dangerous situation, where there is a risk of death or injury, sound your horn, even during the night. The inappropriate use of the horn is illegal between 23:00 and 07:30.
UK motorists tend not to change tyres in the winter so need to be extra careful in icy or snowy conditions.
Hiring a vehicle
A number of organisations operate car hire in the UK, with some specialist hire firms also hiring minibuses for 'private' use. When hiring, you will almost certainly be asked for proof of identity. In most cases a current suitable 'photocard'-style driving licence will be sufficient. If you don't hold a UK licence some vehicle rental companies may require you to sit a brief Highway Code test aimed at tourists, or will accompany you on a brief drive to assess your driving.
Some hire companies will also seek to establish if you have appropriate insurance (as driving without it in the UK is a crime). Whilst you may have insurance cover, it is sometimes more convenient to accept that offered by hire companies, or to pay an excess, for convenience.
Do not under any circumstances hire a vehicle from an individual you are unsure of, especially if they are not a representative of an established firm. This is especially important at airports and other prominent transport hubs.
It is a crime to drive a vehicle in the UK without appropriate insurance, and if caught you could face an expensive court appearance.
Vehicle crime and security
Vehicle crime in the UK is at a level comparable with the rest of Europe, and it is unlikely that you will be affected by it if you follow the standard advice about locking up a vehicle, and not leaving valuable items on display (sat-navs have been noted as an attractive target). You should also not leave any important documents (such as your driving license, insurance or hire agreement) in an unattended vehicle.
In some areas of the UK so-called 'clampers' operate, to enforce parking restrictions. Despite the view presented by the media in the UK, the number of rogue clampers is decreasing, owing to a clamp-down within the parking sector.
If your vehicle is clamped :
- Be polite but firm with the clampers.
- Always ask for their identification and authorisation.
- Remember that most private clampers do not have 'Police'-style powers.
- Do NOT pay clampers cash on the spot!