All About Driving
a Car in
The best way to get around for most
people in Britain is by car.
A 'Congestion Zone' street
sign and road marking in London.
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.
Fuel Costs and Conversions
between Liters and Gallons and Gallons
To explain the heading, there
are both UK 'Imperial' gallons and US gallons. UK gallons
have eight pints, each of 20 imperial ounces; US gallons have
eight pints, each of 16 imperial ounces.
There are 3.79 liters in a US
gallon, and 4.54 liters in a UK gallon. In other words, a UK
gallon is 20% larger than a US gallon.
So, don't get too excited if
you see that your rental car is getting lots of miles per gallon -
the gallons are bigger in the UK so of course you get more miles
for each of those gallons.
Although they are bigger, UK
gallons are very much more expensive. And to make things
more confusing, you buy petrol by the liter, not by the gallon,
and of course, the price is in British pounds per liter.
Prices per liter vary from gas
station to gas station, much the same as in the US. Nearly
all are self serve, and many allow you to pay at the pump with
your credit card.
The bottom line? At the
time of writing (May 2011) petrol in the UK costs almost US$9/US
gallon, whereas the ruling cost in the US is about $4 or very
slightly less. The cost of fuel is almost twice as much in
the UK as in the US.
On the other hand, cars are
generally smaller and lighter in the UK, and so offer improved
fuel economy. You'll easily be able to get over 30 mpg (in
US terms) with most cars and most open road driving experiences,
and probably over 35 mpg.
In addition, distances are
short in Britain. Nowhere is too far from anywhere else so
you won't be driving as much as you might expect.
Sometimes you may be offered
the option of a rental car which uses diesel rather than regular
petrol. If given such an option, accept it with alacrity and
Although diesel costs very
slightly more per gallon, you will get about 25% greater energy
per gallon of diesel, meaning your overall motoring costs will
appreciably drop when using a diesel fueled car.
Diesel is regularly available
at most if not nearly all gas stations.
Modern diesel cars drive as
responsively and readily as petrol powered cars, so a diesel car
has no downside to you as a driver and an appreciable cost-saving
Congestion Charge in London
you wish to take a car into central London during the week, you
will have to pay a daily fee to do so - this fee is referred to as
a Congestion Charge. You should see signs such as these in
the picture at the top of the page, both on the road and on placards alongside the road
warning you of entering the Congestion Zone.
Automatic cameras record and
identify the number plates of all cars in the zone, and bill the
drivers accordingly. Your rental car company will probably
agree to pay this on your behalf and add the fee to your rental if
you are incurring such charges on the day you pick up or drop off
otherwise you have to go through a complicated payment process
voluntarily. If you don't do this, the fee for being billed
after the fact is £60 (call it $100).
The fee is £10 per vehicle,
and applies if your vehicle is in the Congestion zone at any time
between 7am and 6pm, Monday to Friday. This charge applies
to rental cars as well as other vehicles, and if you are picking
up and/or returning a rental car in central London you will have
to pay this.
Drinking and Driving
The blood/alcohol limit in the
UK is 80 mgm alcohol/100 ml of blood - the same as in most of the
US and elsewhere in the world.
Also the same is fairly
rigorous enforcement of that limit.
Everyone must always wear
seatbelts in both the front and back of vehicles if they are
fitted. Children under 12 or under 4' 5" must use child
You can not use a hand-held
mobile phone while driving. You can use a hands-free attachment
There are two main differences
between traffic lights in Britain and in the US. One is
obvious, the other is more subtle.
The obvious difference is that
the lights will go to amber prior to going to green. This
gives you a second or two to get ready to move away from the light
as soon as the green shows.
It is perhaps a nice extra bit
of information, but the downside is that some people might move
off as soon as the amber shows, and end up colliding with another
car coming from the other road that is running the amber/red light
in their direction. So, as always, exercise prudence before
pulling into an intersection, even if it seems you have right of
This also leads to the more
subtle difference. In the US, when the light changes from
green to amber, that seems to be generally interpreted as 'quickly
hurry through the intersection'. In the UK and in many other
countries too, as soon as the light goes amber you must stop if at
all possible and not even start to enter the intersection.
One more thing about traffic
lights. We in the US are usually allowed to 'turn right on
red' after stopping and checking it is safe to proceed. This
is not the case in England (and, of course, due to driving on the
other side of the road, it would be 'turn left on red').
Unless you have a directional green arrow or a special free turn
lane, a red light means stop, with no exceptions.
Automatic Traffic Lights at
Although in some respects,
Britain still seems to have some vestiges of over-employment and
too many people doing too little work, one area where they've made
a great productivity improvement is at road works.
In the US, if road works
reduce a road from two lanes down to one, we are used to seeing
signalers at each end controlling the flow of traffic, telling us
when to stop and when it is our turn to proceed.
This is uncommon in Britain.
Instead, many times, the road works will have traffic lights at
each end of the one lane area, and they will automatically switch,
alternatively giving traffic from each direction a chance to
travel through the one lane zone, and giving sufficient time (at
least in theory for traffic moving at normal speeds) for the
traffic going one way to clear through the restricted zone before
allowing the traffic in the other direction to start their turn.
Sometimes these lights are set
on an automatic timer, so you may have the annoyance of having to
stop and wait what seems a very long time, even though there is no
oncoming traffic. Sometimes the lights have radar sensors in
them so they can detect when your vehicle approaches, and they'll
then switch to give you right-of-way as soon as they've completed
the other direction's time.
Either way, sometimes a
measure of patience is called for.
There are some unexpected
things to be aware of in Britain that are happily less common in
Slow moving farm machinery
Perhaps the most common
unusual danger (if this isn't an oxymoron) is of driving around a
corner at 50+ mph to suddenly find yourself immediately behind a
huge over-width piece of farm machinery driving at 10 mph and an
oncoming car making it impossible to overtake the tractor.
You have to suddenly slam on
the brakes and slow down from 50+ mph to 10 mph in less distance
than you think possible!
If you're driving in a rural
area, be aware of the possibility of such encounters.
Cyclists with no room to pass
Many of the smaller roads are
quite narrow, with barely enough room for two cars to pass, and
with no shoulder to pull over onto.
This is not normally a problem
until you come across cyclists in front of you. It may well
be that there is not enough room to safely pass the cyclists when
there is also oncoming traffic, and you'll need to slow down
behind the cyclists until the oncoming traffic has passed.
Sometimes in the countryside
you'll come across people riding horses along the side of the
Most horses are generally
reasonably accustomed to cars, but not all are, and even
experienced horses can have bad days or get sudden frights from
the most ordinary seeming things (according to our perception).
The last thing you want is a
horse suddenly rearing up and kicking out at your car; the second
last thing you want is the horse rearing up, throwing its rider,
and then running away.
So please slow way way down,
even if there are no other cars around, and give the animal as
wide a berth as possible, and don't accelerate again until well
past the animal.
Humped one-lane bridges
Sometimes you'll encounter
humped one lane bridges - perhaps also with a twist in the road
going up to the hump. These are typically over canals, and
sometimes over railway lines.
The problem is that it is a
one-lane bridge and you can't see oncoming traffic. Wind
down your window so you can hear cars coming from the other
direction, and sound your horn as you are about to go up your side
of the hump to allow oncoming cars to, in turn, hear you.
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
Driving Techniques and
Issues - about one lane roads and motorways (freeways), speed
limits and enforcement.
Miscellaneous Considerations when Driving in Britain (this
is the page you are currently on) - 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
Related Articles, etc
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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.