All About Driving
a Car in
The best way to get around for most
people in Britain is by car.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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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.