If you're planning a trip to the U.K., you are in for a treat: winding country roads lined with ancient stone walls, hedgerows and wildflowers that lead to 12th-century castles.
A treat, that is, unless you are an American with a rental car driving on the opposite side of the car and the road for the first time. Those tiny roads with their blind curves! Those walls that lean in toward your car! The tour bus headed your way from the castle that forces your car into the hedgerow!
The first few days of driving on the "wrong" side of the road can be a real horror show. Everything feels out of place to the driver, and everything feels too close to the passenger. And the passenger will tell you about it. Over and over. For days. "You're pretty close on this side. Might want to move over. You're right up against the wildflowers over here." This is not as helpful as they think.
It's not just that you're on the left side of the road, but you're driving on the right side of the car. All of your years of American driving will have you drifting over toward the left when you need to be firmly planted on the right side of the lane. So sure, the passenger isn't wrong when they tell you you're drifting into the verges, but do they have to say it so often and be so panicked about it?
After a few days, right around the time your jet lag lifts, you will be driving pretty confidently. Here are a few things that will help ease that transition.
- Rent a car with an automatic transmission. Stick shifts are more popular in the U.K. than they are in the U.S., so they're often cheaper to rent. But even if you are able to drive a manual, pay the extra money for the automatic if you've never driven in the U.K. It's one less adjustment to make while you're getting the hang of things.
- Remember that left turns are going to be the easy ones that go with traffic. You'll need to be extra cautious when making a right turn across a lane or two.
- When on the highway, you'll be passing on the right instead of the left. The left lane is the slow lane.
- Don't be afraid of roundabouts. Remember that vehicles on the right have right of way, and sometimes that vehicle is you. If you need to do a lap first to scope out your exit, that's fine.
- Speed limit signs are in miles per hour. Yes, the U.K. uses the metric system for almost everything, but those red circles with a black number inside are not metric. So if it says 70, that means 70 mph (113 kph).
- If you get into real trouble, like an accident, the emergency number in the U.K. is 999.
Big cities in the U.K. have pretty good public transportation systems and taxis/ride-sharing services, so there's no reason to fight through traffic in a rental car. Give your anxiety a break and use the tube.
But outside the city, it can be fun to drive once you get used to it. Let your passenger be the navigator, either with their phone or GPS in the car, so you can pay attention to cars and people and animals in the road. Designate someone who isn't the driver, maybe a backseat adventurer, as the sign reader who's keeping an eye out for the turn to the castle. If they're all busy, they can't complain about how close you are to the verges.