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All About Driving a Car in Britain

The best way to get around for most people in Britain is by car.

The Open Road National Speed Limit Sign

The 'National Speed Limit' sign - confusing if you don't know what it means, but easy to understand when you do.

This is part of our multi-page series on Driving in Britain.  Links to other pages at the bottom.



England has the greatest population density of any country in Europe.  At times it seems that it has the greatest traffic density too - all on roads that are much narrower than what we're used to in the US.

But a generally high standard of driving and efficient traffic management makes driving in England and all of Britain easier than it might otherwise be.

You'll have to learn some new rules, and maybe you'll have to brush up on your parallel parking skills, but other than that, you should have no problems.

This is just as well because without a doubt, for most people, the best way to sightsee in Britain is by car.

Driving in Britain

Most drivers in Britain are good skilled drivers.  The test to qualify for a driver's license in Britain is much more demanding than in the US, and many people fail to pass on the first (and possibly even the second and subsequent) attempt.

They need to be good drivers.  As you'll discover yourself, lanes are always narrower than they are in the US, and sometimes very much narrower.  In addition, once you get off the main roads, you may find yourself driving on one lane roads.

Traffic moves faster, and is usually fairly dense.

Parking spaces are smaller too, and much of the time, you'll need to be parallel parking.

The following pages detail some of the aspects of driving which are different to what we're used to 'back home'.  If you'd like to study the complete UK Highway Code, you can find it online here.

Needless to say, in the event of any apparent contradiction between what we recommend and what the Highway Code states, the Highway Code is the official and only source you should accept.

Navigating, Maps, and the 'Danger' of GPS

Using maps in Britain is a very different experience than in the US.

In the US, with the traditional Rand McNally type road atlas, with one page per state, one can drive all day and stay on the same page of the map book.

In the UK, the scale is very much more zoomed in.  Some maps will be four miles to the inch, some might even be three miles to the inch.  This means at say 70 miles an hour, you are moving an inch on the map every three and a half minutes.  You can almost move your finger along the map as the car moves along the road.

So UK maps are very detailed, showing every small side road and sometimes even showing things like farm buildings and other landmarks.

The best maps are those using the official 'Ordnance Survey' maps.  If you are buying a UK map, be sure it is drawn using Ordnance Survey (OS) coordinates.  These coordinates are used by a lot of places to describe where they are located, and will comprise a two letter code (eg SP) and then four or six (sometimes even eight) digits.  If you have an OS scaled map, you can locate such addresses very easily, but if you just have a generic map, the location codes are useless.

Different Road Types

In Britain roads are more or less categorized into several different types.

The best roads are motorways (what we call freeways), and these are signified by the letter M followed by a number - eg, M6 or M25.  There does not seem to be any obvious logic to the numbering system, unlike in the US - there is a sort of numbering logic in place, but there are as many exceptions as there are motorways adhering to the 'rules' as to make it rather meaningless.

The next category of roads are 'almost motorways' and they are usually given the letter A, then a number, and then an M in brackets after that - eg, the A1(M).

Next down from that are major roads, which will be given the letter A then a number, for example, the A30.

Here's an interesting thing.  In many cases - but not all - the bigger the number, the smaller the road.  For example, the A303 was originally not as major a road as the A30 (but in recent years it has been expanded while the A30 has been overloooked), and the A3038 is appreciably smaller than both the others.

Due to roads having been numbered many years ago, these days there are many exceptions to the concept of bigger numbers meaning smaller roads, but it is still probably more right than wrong.

The single digit road A1 - A6 radiate clockwise out from London, and the three remaining roads A7 - !9 radiate clockwise out from Edinburgh.

Two digit numbered roads lie between the main single digit roads.

By the time we get to three and four digit roads, they probably still lie in the appropriate quadrant indicated by the first digit of their number, but they may be running across the quadrant or radiating in/out or who knows what else.  For example, the A3038 is nowhere near the A303 or the A30 or the A3, and the A3039 is nowhere near the A3038 or the A303, A30 or A3.

Going down a standard from the A roads takes us to B roads.  These are numbered local roads typically carrying less traffic and not very long.

Some B roads can be quite substantial in size, but usually it is fair to guess that a B road will be smaller than an A road.

The next level down takes you to unnumbered roads.  These might actually have semi-secret numbers that are not used on official road signs, and they might be categorized as C or D roads, or even as U roads (ie unclassified) but that is a 'behind the scenes' thing that you'll not see any formal signage about.  Well - not usually, but there are some exceptions, even to that.

These unnumbered roads are more likely to be one-way roads.  Very few A roads are one way, a significant percentage of B roads may be one-way, and quite a lot of the unnumbered roads are one way.

Toll Roads

There is only one toll road in Britain at present, the M6 Toll, which loops around the north east of the regular M6 for 27 miles, just north of Birmingham.  The cost for a regular car to travel the length of the toll road is currently (May 2011) 5.30.  There are toll booths which make paying the toll easy.

This toll road has been largely avoided by drivers, and so is wide open for traffic, whereas the M6 is sometimes appreciably congested.

In addition to toll roads there are some toll bridges (such as the M4 bridge into Wales), but you have less chance to choose whether to use them or take another route, so you'll probably have to pay up.

The 'danger' of GPS navigation

Of course, these days, many of us travel with a GPS, or perhaps hire one with the rental car, or perhaps simply use a GPS function built in to our phone or tablet.

GPS units are wonderfully convenient, and make a sometimes complex and difficult task much simpler.

So what is their danger?  It is this - many times they will take you the shortest route to wherever it is you wish to travel, even if the shortest route involves narrow winding lanes and one way roads.

This problem sometimes manifests itself with truck drivers from Europe who are taking their trucks somewhere in Britain, and relying on a GPS unit to get them where they wish to go.  The GPS may take them onto roads too narrow for trucks, around corners too tight for the trucks to turn, and under low overpasses which the trucks can't clear.

Such problems aren't quite so severe for us in passenger cars, but sometimes you may prefer to take main highways, even if it means traveling a few more miles, than to take more and more narrow one lane country paths.

Check your GPS settings to see if you can discourage it from taking you on too-narrow roads.  One way of doing this is if you can set average driving speeds per road type.  Set the speed much higher on regular roads and much lower on country roads, then choose the routing option for 'get me there quickest'.

The other thing to do is to keep your eyes open while driving.  If you see a sign pointing to your destination in one direction and your GPS tells you to go in the opposite direction, it is usually a better idea to trust the road sign rather than the GPS, particularly if the sign is pointing you down a 'better' road than your GPS. 

For More Information About Driving in Britain

Our Driving in Britain series has four main pages plus two additional pages about other important issues to do with driving in Britain.

The pages are :

An Introduction to Driving in Britain (this is the page you are currently on) - tells you the basic essentials to do with driving in Britain.

Driving Techniques and Issues - about one lane roads and motorways (freeways), speed limits and enforcement.

Miscellaneous Considerations when Driving in Britain - All sorts of other things, ranging from the price of petrol to drink driving and seatbelt rules.

How to Drive around Roundabouts - for information about driving around the roundabouts that are prevalent in Britain (and elsewhere too).

We also have a page about How to Drive on the Left (Other) Side of the Road which sets out some helpful tips and pointers for how to make this as easy as possible.

And, not so much about driving, but still an important aspect of driving, see also our page about where and how to park your car in Britain.

Related Articles, etc

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Originally published 20 May 2011, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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