By Sally Raven
Some say it’s dying out – but in comparison with Europe, Americans still have a pretty major car culture. The prospect of eschewing time behind the wheel for public transport puts the shivers up many an American spine – even when it comes to driving in a foreign country. Driving in Europe presents unique challenges for the American visitor wherever you go. Most Americans, however, reserve special concern for driving in the UK and Ireland. Principally this worry is born of the fact that driving in these nations is on the left rather than the right. However, there are other differences which should be noted. If you’re planning on getting a hire car in the UK, here are some hints and tips regarding driving which should put your mind at ease!
The Car Itself
So you’ve picked up your car, and it’s a bit weird. The steering wheel is on the wrong side, and it’s most likely a stick rather than an automatic. Don’t freak out. Honestly, the hardest thing about the steering wheel placement is that you’ll try to climb in the passenger side several times out of sheer habit before you get the hang of it. No harm done. You may also note that your spatial awareness might be a bit skewed – there’s a lot more of the car to your left that you’ll be used to, and a lot less of it to your right. Drive closer to the right kerb than feels natural (but don’t overdo it, obviously!). Most British cars are also operated with a stick shift – Brits tend to think that automatic cars are a bit pathetic – so it might be worth getting used to changing gears manually (and with your left hand) before you hit the roads. British cars must all be insured as a matter of course. A good hire car company should provide insurance as standard, but you might want to investigate your options in this area just in case.
Before the advent of the motor car, pretty much every society travelled on the left. Keeping left meant that you could fend off attackers with your sword arm should the need arise. With their history of highwaymen (and general obstinacy when it comes to dropping long-held traditions), the British made driving on the left the law – and stuck to it even when motorcars became the norm. In the age of the car, this may seem a little perverse – but once you get used to it, you’ll find that it actually doesn’t make much of a difference at all. And don’t worry, you’re exceedingly unlikely to have to roll down your window in order to engage a highwayman in a swordfight. Driving on the left is, in fact, the least of your problems when it comes to British roads. For starters, like most European road systems, British roads have evolved over millennia. Consequently, they are twisty, often narrow, and less than intuitive. If you’re driving through the rural southwestern counties, you’ll find that the lanes are sunken between hedges, often not tarmacked, and too narrow to accommodate most American-sized cars. Not to mention the blind corners and inexplicable doubling-back that they do. Oh, and if you encounter another car, you’ll usually have no option but to reverse (sometimes for over a mile) until you find a convenient gateway to slip into while the other car passes. Learn to reverse around corners, blind.
Roundabouts are an uncommon phenomenon in the States, but they’re pretty standard fare in the UK. They may seem confusing at first but they’re actually pretty simple. If you don’t know which junction to choose, you can travel round and round the roundabout as many times as you please while you make your mind up!
British drivers really know what they’re doing. The British driving test is incredibly tough, making the British incredibly skilled drivers in comparison to the average American. They’re also reasonably courteous – horn-honking is a last resort, to be used only in moments of near-incandescent rage. It’s worth noting that cycling and walking are quite popular on British roads. Nor is jaywalking a crime in the UK. Pedestrians can and will step blithely out in front of you at the slightest opportunity. Bearing in mind that the right kerb/edge is closer to you than you may intuit, try to pass these quite wide!