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Britain's traffic rules and driving strategies are different in some respects to those in the US, and you need to know how to adapt to their standards.

Fortunately, it is easy to do so and traffic is generally lawful, safe and sane.
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Driving Techniques and Issues in Britain

From multi-lane motorways to single lane country roads.

Minimum Speed Sign

Bet you don't know what this sign means.

Hint - it is not showing a maximum speed of 30 mph, quite the opposite.  The answer is in the text below.

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



You may find yourself experiencing both extremes of driving scenarios while in Britain.  Some of the time you may be on congested six lane in each direction super-freeways; but at other times, you might be driving along meandering country lanes no more than one car width wide.

Fortunately, both scenarios, and the multitude of other scenarios in the middle, all involve interactions with generally safe, skilled and courteous fellow motorists, and the beauty of the British countryside will richly reward your decision to venture outside of the big cities.

So, equipped with the knowledge and skills from this multi-part series you can plan your British touring with confidence and competence.

Driving on One Lane Roads

You can travel around most of the UK on regular two lane roads, and may never need to drive on a one lane road at all; or if you do end up on one land roads, it might be for only a mile or so to get to some special place well off the beaten track.

On the other hand, in the smaller country areas, you'll find the regions are often criss-crossed by one lane roads which present as much shorter routes to get where you're going; and in some of the more deserted regions of the Scottish Highlands, you'll have no choice but to take one land roads which are the only arterial routes from one place to another.

If you find yourself taking a one lane road, whether by choice or necessity, relax.  It isn't as dangerous as you might think, especially if you follow certain sensible procedures.

The first is to go slowly and carefully, particularly when going around corners that might conceal a car coming towards you from the other direction.

We suggest you consider turning your lights on.  This does two things - it makes you more visible to oncoming cars, and also immediately shows them that you are traveling towards them rather than being stopped or moving in the same direction as they are.

You should also keep mental note of the occasional passing bays that will be on the road as you pass them.  That way, if you see an oncoming car, you have a sense for the regularity of the passing bays and can guess as to if you should reverse back to a nearby one behind you, or if you should hope the other guy will reverse back instead to one behind him.

Hopefully however, you'll see each other in time for one of you to move forward to a passing bay in the middle between you, meaning neither of you have to reverse at all.

Freeway (motorway) driving in the UK

The usual speed limit on freeways in Britain is 70 mph.  But many cars exceed 80 mph and not much traffic goes slower than 70 mph, so in general, traffic moves quickly.

It is even common to find cars traveling at 90 mph, and cars going much faster will occasionally rush past as well.

There is one very important rule to follow on British freeways.  Always keep to the left or 'slow' lane unless you are overtaking.  In the US, a lot of people just get in a lane and stay in it, whether they are overtaking or not.  That is absolutely not acceptable in Britain, where drivers are fastidious at keeping to the left unless actively engaged in a specific act of overtaking.

Part of the reason for this is because it is illegal to overtake on the left.  The other part is because it is illegal to stay on the right, and impolite as well.

As long as you heed this most important rule, you'll do just fine.  And if you find yourself unfortunately stuck behind a slow driver in the fast lane, it is perfectly acceptable to flash your lights at the driver to signal they should move back over to the left.

Much of the UK freeway system seems to operate perilously close to capacity much of the time, and in particular, the M25 circular motorway around London is always close to capacity.  This means that congestion can and sometimes does occur, particularly if there has been an accident, or roadworks, or at rush hours.

Service areas with gas stations, rest rooms, and some fast food outlets can be found every 20 - 40 miles or so along the freeways.

Inside or Outside lane nomenclature

The 'slow' lane on a UK freeway is of course on the left, and is the main lane where exits from the freeway leave.  In the US we would probably call that the 'outside' lane.

But in the UK, this is termed the 'inside' lane.  Confused?  Just refer to the slow and fast (or overtaking) lanes, perhaps.

Exit Numbering

Exits are numbered sequentially rather than based on mileage from a reference point.  In city areas, exits are closely spaced, but out in the country, they can be ten miles or more apart.

So if you passing by exit 17 and are due to leave the freeway at exit 23, you really have no way of knowing, just by the numbers, if this is a short distance or potentially 50 miles away.

You may also notice exit numbers with a letter after them - eg exit 7A.  This occurs when an extra exit is added between exits 7 and 8.

Speed Limits and Enforcement

Most of the time, you'll find the applicable speed limit clearly posted on the roads you are traveling along.

The one exception is the 'National Speed Limit' sign (shown at the top of the page).  This numberless symbol means '60 mph'.

Freeways (called motorways in Britain) and other dual carriageways generally have a 70 mph speed limit, which currently (May 2011) is being the subject of discussions to increase up to 80 mph.  Other roads have successively lower speeds.

Unlike the US, there is very little speed enforcement by actual police officers in patrol cars.  Most enforcement is done by automatic speed cameras.

The general rule of thumb is that you can drive up to 10% plus 2 mph over the speed limit without risking a ticket.  So if the limit is 40, you can drive at up to 46, and if 70, you could probably go up to 79 without triggering any enforcement action.

In addition to regular speed enforcement based on your instantaneous speed at a single point, there are also average speed cameras, usually in motorway work zones where the speed has been restricted down from 70 mph to something much lower.

You'll see these on yellow overhead gantries, every few miles, as you drive through the restricted area, and there are advisory signs telling you of their presence.  They are very effective in getting drivers to slow down and observe the posted speed, which is perhaps just as well, because the British seem to delight in closing down sometimes tens of miles of their motorways with no sign of any roadworks other than thousands of traffic safety cones blocking off the unused lanes.  Very frustrating.

It seems that the UK police seldom bother enforcing automatically generated tickets issued to out of country drivers, and because it is a driver offense rather than a car owner offense, rental car companies won't pay speeding fines on your behalf and then charge you for the 'service'.

They might charge you a service fee though if they have to release your name and address information to the police.

Talking about speed limits, do pay attention to the speed sign illustrated at the top of the article.

This sign does not show the maximum speed you can drive; instead it shows the minimum speed which you must exceed.

So if you ever see a white number inside a blue circle, that is the lowest speed you can drive at.  Maximum speed limits are black numbers inside white circles with red external rings around them.

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 - tells you the basic essentials to do with driving in Britain.

Driving Techniques and Issues (this is the page you are currently on) - 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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