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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.

London Congestion Zone Sign

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.

Diesel Fuel

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 grace.

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 upside.

Congestion Charge in London

If 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 the vehicle; 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.

Seat Belts

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 restraints.

Mobile Phones

You can not use a hand-held mobile phone while driving. You can use a hands-free attachment while driving.

Traffic Lights

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 way.

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 Road Works

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.

Unusual Dangers

There are some unexpected things to be aware of in Britain that are happily less common in the US.

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 road.

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 Britain.

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 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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