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How hard for Americans to drive in England and vice versa

We are doing a home exchange in East Sussex, England and we will also be exchanging our cars. How difficult is it to drive on the opposite side of car and road the first time you try it. Obviously everyone is different, but I'm curious if it's harder or easier than we imagine. We'll stay away from cities, and take trains to those.

Posted by
291 posts

You shouldn't have much trouble at all.
Main thing to confirm in advance from the people is that the car will almost certainly be manual gearbox and there is a 50/50 chance its a diesel car. Main things are the little things like etiquette at the roundabouts and when you pay for gas you fill up straight away without doing anything and are trusted to wander across to the kiosk and pay afterwards. As others have said its no big deal really. Personally, my problem is when you return home. When you visit a new place you're real alert to the new environment, a few times I've returned to the airport back home complacent after a long flight and started driving the wrong side of the road in my own country.

Posted by
1986 posts

I have done what Bob did- find myself driving on the wrong side back in Los Angeles. Now that is embarassing Actually, driving in England is usually not a problem. Its a lot easier in small towns with lines down the middle of the street. You find that as long as there are other cars on the road you just follow them. We have also found our way through Cities - just folow the main roads through, they are usually well marked (just avoid the large ones)

Posted by
683 posts

Impossible to say, as that depends on you. That said, it can be confusing bcuz the turns are opposite of everything you are used to. Many have done it, so it isn't like it can't be done. We were just in Australia (also a left-side drive). Tho we didnt drive, it didnt seem like a weird thing to have cars use left instead of right.Enjoy the experience.

Posted by
2876 posts

I got used to it pretty quick. Be aware that your exchange family's car may very well be stick-shift. Someone gave me a 'driving thought' that helped me: the driver is always to the center of the road.

Posted by
635 posts

Adjusting as the driver wasn't a big deal. I think the vast majority of the worries expressed here are totally unfounded. I do all the driving. I have turned a few corners and started to turn into the wrong lane. Fortunately, I've quickly recovered. I do believe I brought a few people closer to God. I think my wife has more problems as the passenger. She spends most of the time gripping the armrest like it could possibly help her in a crash. I have a "free second driver" rate on our next trip and I've told her she gets to do some of the driving. She's less than excited. What I really love are the roundabouts. I especially like the ones where two streets come together in what we'd call a normal intersection. You get to go around the circle just to keep turn at the second exit to keep going straight.

Posted by
768 posts

Ken, don't make your poor wife drive, bless her soul. I should have asked, how hard will it be for my husband to get used to driving, because I have no intention of getting behind the wheel myself-I'm with your wife on this one! I can't even handle roundabouts in my own country without a nervous breakdown! I CAN see my husband getting really annoyed at me when I "critique" his driving over there. Should be some very funny memories!

Posted by
3172 posts

We have done two, one month house exchanges (with car) in the UK. The first one was in 1995 and the second one was last year. My husband did all of the driving and I was the VERY white knuckled passenger the first time. Last summer's experience was MUCH better for me. I was even able to put both of my hands in my lap most of the time. I think one thing that helped was that we had a GPS this time that helped sort out some of the roundabouts. We have owned a stick shift car for years so driving one, albeit with the shifting being done with the left hand wasn't a problem at all for him either time. I think our first wake up call that made a huge impression on us was as we struggled to leave Heathrow the very first time and were on the ring M road, we heard an emergency vehicle siren. My husband pulled over to the right and slowed down...Of course the fire engine that was barreling down behind us did not appreciate us pulling over into his lane. You have to be very vigilant.

Posted by
768 posts

Fortunately, the home exchange family has an automatic. We do drive both, but I think the automatic would easier too!

Posted by
768 posts

It would make it easier; I'll just tell my husband that "James" says it's a "piece of cake" (American slang for "easy). Maybe that will reassure him!

Posted by
2664 posts

Driving in England is easy and fun....and I love the roundabouts.
One thing you need to make sure is that their car insurance will cover you. Our friends in Kent was going to let me drive her car and her son who is a solicitor (lawyer) wanted to make sure her insurance would cover me...and it did. I guess a lot of insurance in England does't cover other drivers.

Posted by
970 posts

Kerry, the best advice I can give is to deliberately set aside some time in a place without much traffic to get used to it. Driving is driving. After a day or so of forcing yourself to think, "Stay left, stay left," it will all fall into place. U've never found it to be difficult at all. UK road signs don't bear much resemblance to American signs. Search the web for explanations. You will get used to driving on the left pretty quickly, but you will still need to understand the signs.

Posted by
9110 posts

The UK uses fairly standard international road signs. Nothing to them that you can't figure out in a couple of seconds once you know the basic patterns. The only kicker is the names of the towns - - , they're all spelled with an accent that increases the language barrier for no good reason.

Posted by
1020 posts

It'll feel weird at first, but after a bit of time you get used to it. I don't recall ever seeing a town name in the UK spelled with an accent mark, so I have no clue what that's about. A GPS is very handy and makes navigating through towns and cities and along back country routes much easier.

Posted by
1986 posts

When driving in the country you need to know the next three or so towns/villages on your preferred route. Street signs dont seem to always list the town you want- even if you are on the right road, so be prepared, A good navigator with a good map helps

Posted by
5669 posts

Kerry, I am with those who say that is not as hard as people make out. It's especially not as hard if there is a navigator. I think that the times when things get dicey is when you're not sure where to go. If all you are focusing on is driving then your husband will find that he will get used to it. I got so used to it my first time that when I came back to the US I slammed my left hand into the driver's door trying to shift! That leads me to my second point. It will not be a disaster if the car is standard, unless of course, your husband has never driven stick. The difference is that you use your left had to shift. The pedals are the same as left hand drive. I loved driving the small roads of the UK, Scotland in particular. As navigator, you'll want to have the route planned out, and the towns between you and your destination highlighted. UK signs tend to destination rather than road oriented. So, you might not see a sign saying A9 Northbound as you cross the Firth of Forth, but instead are more likely to see one A9 Perth. So, if you're headed to Inverness, you need to know that Perth is located between Edinburgh and Perth. Pam

Posted by
28107 posts

And of course countries in Europe, the UK included, have National speed limits which are not reflected on speed limit signs in many places. Signage over-rules in every case, as does construction. 70 on dual carriageways and motorways, 60 elsewhere. 30 if there are streetlights denoting a "built up" area. Study the road signs and learn the one for derestriction and national speed limit.

Posted by
768 posts

all very helpful advice, thank you. I don't know if the exchange family has a GPS, I hope so. We used one in France and Spain and with the exception of the time it incorrectly put us on a treacherous mountain route to nowhere, it worked great! I wonder if I can rent one for the two weeks I'll be in England?

Posted by
28107 posts

Whatever it is, you will want to be prepared for the running costs. Today I just paid over £75 to fill my car - first time it has been that much. It was £1.47 a litre which works out at around US$9.11 a US gallon. And as a previous poster stated, you will need to sort the insurance out. Unless your hosts make you a named party on their insurance for the duration of your stay it is highly unlikely that theirs will cover you. It is equally unlikely that your NJ policy will - but check with your broker. When my brother visits me from the States I add him to my policy for around £75 a month.

Posted by
970 posts

In my experience, UK roadsigns may be understandable by an American after a second or two, but often you won't have the time to ponder. They may be up to international standards, but they are very different than signs here. (Which probably means our signs aren't.) Roadsigns often (usually?) point to the next town or village down the road. E.g., if you are following the A3456 (making this up) to Lower Pond-Upon-Thames, it pays to know the name of the places in between you and your destination. British drivers, in my experience, are very good. In cities, however, they are no more tolerant of odd behavior on the road than we are. Remember, for when you get lost, nothing is laid out in a grid pattern, Take good maps and use a GPS.

Posted by
1427 posts

I can identify with James whose wife is a nervous passenger. My husband does all the driving in the UK and now feels fairly comfortable with it. We've been there many times, so I've gotten a bit better as a passenger. On the first trip, it felt as if he was going to drive into a ditch and then it felt as if he was going too far the other way. It took him awhile on that first trip to feel comfortable about his placement on the road. Our GPS has helped us a lot over there too. It's definitely worth driving in order to see some of the places we would never get to otherwise.

Posted by
31521 posts

Kerry, I haven't had any problems driving in the U.K., but find that it helps to spend a few minutes sitting in the driver's seat and becoming familiar with the layout of the controls. I always prefer to have an automatic, although I could tolerate a stick shift if necessary. I'd suggest getting used to the driving experience in a more "rural" area with light traffic, and avoid driving in cities whenever possible. Some cities have fairly restrictive parking regulations and I've seen a few cases where "The Boot" is used (which is expensive to have removed!). Many of the roads in rural areas especially are quite narrow, so be careful to allow enough space for approaching traffic. As I recall there are automated speed Cameras in different locations, so be sure to watch the speed limits carefully. Does your home exchange include each couple being responsible for payment of their own "moving violations" during the exchange period? Does your car insurance cover specific "principal drivers" or is it more flexible? What type of insurance does the other couple have? Good luck and happy travels!

Posted by
768 posts

The car will be automatic, although my husband drives a manual at home. The home exchange family has already asked for all my husbands information so that they can add him to their policy. My insurance company does not require any personal information (I've exchanged cars previously), but I do notify them of the fact that my guests will be using my car. We will definitely print out London's traffic signs, review them and bring them with us to put on the dashboard of the car. We will practice driving in the country and won't be driving into any big cities. It will all depend on how comfortable my husband gets. I'm going to see if the home exchange family has a GPS or look to see if one can be rented from a car rental company. I may be able to do this on-line from home. I appreciate all your good advice.

Posted by
635 posts

You can get a reconditioned GPS on Ebay that includes European roads for around $100 - 150. There are also cards with European roads that will fit a GPS you might have but doesn't have Europe in it. Don't rent. Even a short trip can cost as much as buying your own.

Posted by
62 posts

Hi Kerry,
I just got back from 9 days in Scotland and had a rental car. I found the hardest part to remember is that I had to reach with my right hand for my seat belt. :) Truly it wasn't hard at all to drive on the left side of the road. If you have or can get a GPS, I'd do it. I didn't spend the money for one with the rental and wish I had. It would have saved a lot of time if I didn't get lost so often. Either that or you need to have someone with you who will give you the complete and exact directions when you are looking for the roads to turn on. My travel partner omitted little things like going 2/10ths of a mile and taking the 1st left and instead just gave me "turn left on and the street name" which there wasn't a sign for. I loved driving in Scotland and will do it again but I'll have a GPS the next time. Pam

Posted by
57 posts

Kerry, We traveled from London to Bath. Then to Stratford upon Avon and then back to london. Overall it was fine. I did find myself looking the wrong way in the roundabouts, which made my wife a little nervous. What I did find interesting was I had a habit of drifting to the right, away from oncoming traffic and closer to the shoulder of the road. Good luck and have a great time.

Posted by
1980 posts

When going around a round-about, the navigator would tell me to get off at the 3 o'clock or six o'clock position and that really helped rather than saying take the first or second exit, driving on left isn't that bad and doesn't take too long to get used to it

Posted by
57 posts

Obviously, I don't know my right from my left. On my previous post I mentioned I would drift to the right, I actually had a tendency to drift to the left, away from oncoming traffic.

Posted by
768 posts

On our last trip to Spain & France, we stayed in some pretty remote places and drove on some very scary mountain passes, many without guardrails; being the passenger, I always felt that my husband drove to close to the edge of the cliff (on MYside). It was on this trip that I fell head over heals in love with guard rails; steel guardrails, stone guardrails, boulder guardrails - I am grateful to them all!

Posted by
143 posts

Sometimes we don't emphasize enough that you need to LOOK RIGHT first. US drivers are conditioned to always look LEFT first. I keep telling myself to LOOK RIGHT, then LEFT and then RIGHT again when in the UK and other places where you drive on the LEFT. This goes for walking too. LOOK RIGHT first. Then Left, then RIGHT again.

Posted by
970 posts

John's advice is well taken. Deliberately think LOOK RIGHT, as a driver or a walker. It's easy to spot newbie American tourists in London. They're the ones who step out in front of the car that just sneaked through the light. Also, some drivers seem to get flummoxed as they approach a roundabout. Again, THINK LEFT. Know where you want to go, both route number and interim destinations. Enter the roundabout when you have the right of way. Look for your exit and take it. If you miss it, go around.

Posted by
5669 posts

Ah, getting lost on the small road of the UK. Leave room in your travel schedule to enjoy these side excursions which have the potential to provide truly marvelous memories. Pam

Posted by
11973 posts

I think you get used to it quickly. The biggest thing, whether driving or walking, is to always look both ways before crossing a street or entering traffic - the cars will be coming from the opposite direction you expect. If you always look both ways, you will be okay. The other hard thing for me was a desire to go the wrong way around a roundabout, I had to concentrate on doing that correctly too. The idea that the driver is toward the center helps. Once established on a road, it really isn't that hard. Same thing for a stick. You have to use your left hand, to shift, but the pedals are the same.

Posted by
425 posts

One MAJOR rule that might help is NEVER get fuel from a gas station on the "other" side of the road. It is too easy to make a mistake when you exit. And just have a little mantra when you put the key in ..... "where am I??" ... just to remind yourself. One-way streets are a real problem when you turn into a two-way street, if you lose concentration for a second!
Roger

Posted by
425 posts

If only your founding fathers had stuck with the British way of doing things and not changed to the right!! :-) To quote WIKIPEDIA ... "The first keep-right law in the United States, passed in 1792, applied to the Philadelphia and Lancaster Turnpike, between Lancaster and Philadelphia. New York (in 1804) and New Jersey (in 1813) also enacted keep-right rules. Only the formerly British "Thirteen Colonies" historically drove on the left; the historically French, Spanish, Russian, and Hawaiian portions of the United States all drove on the right by the time they were acquired by the United States."
Roger

Posted by
1020 posts

Wikipedia fails to mention that "keep right" was one of the provisions in the agreement between Washington and Lafayette to preclude the American and French allies from running into each other in camp.

Posted by
1986 posts

Gee. I wasnt aware the French, Spanish and Russian colonies had the automobile. Amazing what you learn on this site

Posted by
59 posts

Just about every possible piece of advice has already been posted on this topic, but I think there is one point that was only touched on and needs to be emphasized: The most dangerous situation is approaching a main road from a small side road (say a country lane from a farm). It is very easy, especially if by yourself, to revert to your lifelong habit of looking left and, seeing no traffic, pull out and start down the road to your right on the wrong side, possibly being clobbered before you realize your mistake. At a side-road junction like this, there typically are no clues as to which side of the road to be on. As was said above, think LOOK RIGHT. I came very close to being in a serious accident in Australia with a truck because of just such a mental lapse.

Posted by
425 posts

Brian, It's only Los Angeles where the car is/was the only wheeled vehicle. :-) Roger

Posted by
349 posts

I almost got killed I would not drink one drop or drive at night . I had not had anything to drink but was "fresh" from USA when I almost made my fatal mistake . Do not take it casually

Posted by
768 posts

We will take it very seriously. I'm going to put a big "stickum" on the dashboard saying "LOOK RIGHT"

Posted by
993 posts

I'm also one of those people who get so into the driving, I have to "think Right" when I get home.

Posted by
189 posts

Kerry,
It is quite easy to get used to. I agree, though, that you should give yourself an hour or so to practice. I have driven there several times now, and I just love it.