Will driving in the UK mess with my mind?
July 21, 2005 12:09 PM   Subscribe

How hard is it to drive on the opposite side of the road?

My sister and I are planning a trip to the UK (we're in the US). We've never driven overseas -- if we decide to rent a car, how easy or hard will it be to adapt to driving on the "wrong side"?
posted by JanetLand to Travel & Transportation around United Kingdom (33 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I spent time in the UK for work last year, and didn't have that much trouble. You might want to start out some place where you can practice turning a little bit where traffic isn't going to be brutal (read: not downtown London!), but you should be able to adjust without too much trouble (and vice versa, according to my British friends who have come to the US).
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 12:14 PM on July 21, 2005

It's not too bad, in my experience, as long as you're in a right-wheel car.

Just remember to look right first, not left, for oncoming traffic, and give yourself plenty of room the first few times you turn onto a new road, because you may tend instinctively toward the wrong lane.

Shifting left-handed can be a bit dodgy, so get an automatic if you can.

Have fun!
posted by nyterrant at 12:17 PM on July 21, 2005

It's not bad at all. I have driven in a couple of non-right-side countries, and I find the transition to be pretty easy. Most of the time you're driving a manual car, too -- so there are lots of reminders that things are different, especially if you are used to driving an automatic.

Some things I always get wrong when making the transition: using wipers instead of turn signals and getting into the wrong side of the car when going to sit down. I also tend to do things like deal playing cards incorrectly in those countries because my sense of right and left gets messed up, especially if you spend a lot of time driving around roundabouts (the other way!!).

I have actually found the transition back to US-style driving to be more challenging, since I tend to let my guard down and just relax behind the wheel when I am back here.

All in all, though, I would say that driving in a foreign country is one of the most enjoyable ways of exploring. You get to see all kinds of off-the-beaten-path locales, you have complete freedom, and you feel a little like you are getting a feel for this foreign society. I highly recommend it. It's worth the effort and the slight bit of mind-messing that comes with it.
posted by paschke at 12:18 PM on July 21, 2005

As the driver, the urge to be along the median is much stronger than the urge to drive on the right.

That said, I secretly had the travel agent book us a manual transmission for my upcoming british honeymoon to prevent my future wife from trying to drive there.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:20 PM on July 21, 2005

Driving on the other side of the road was, for me, less disturbing than driving where traffic going the opposite direction is separated by a WHITE line instead of a YELLOW line. That was freaky as hell. I was constantly tempted to change lanes into oncoming traffic, and every time a car came toward me around a corner I wanted to yell WRONG WAY ASSHOLE!
posted by scarabic at 12:21 PM on July 21, 2005

As a Brit living abroad, I would say it's not that bad as long as you have the steering wheel on the "right" side for where you are, even driving a manual.

Strangely, I have the biggest problems when I return to the UK, and have been round a roundabout the wrong way which livens up everyones day ;o)

The biggest danger is when there is no other traffic around as you can slip into pre-programmed behaviour, as in the roundabout incident above. Just keep repeating "I'm on the wrong side" to yourself...
posted by jontyjago at 12:23 PM on July 21, 2005

And keep in mind it's not just straightaways and turning - a few people I know who've driven there or the other left-hand countries have had bad experiences going the wrong way on the roundabout. They're bad enough to begin with, worse when you're going the wrong direction!
posted by whatzit at 12:24 PM on July 21, 2005

It's surprisingly easy to make the mental switch from right to left, and vice-versa.

Nevertheless, since I'm primarily an automatic-driving, right-side-of-the-road American, I've found that the first three minutes in a British rental car can be a bit hair-raising. The combination of unfamiliar car, left-handed manual transmission, and unfamiliar left-sided roads can sometimes be taxing. After a few minutes though, your mind figures it all out and it becomes effortless.

Try to be more aware on empty roads though, because if there's no traffic to follow, that's when you'll be most likely to switch into the wrong lane.
posted by blue mustard at 12:35 PM on July 21, 2005

When I first drove abroad, (in France, I'm in the UK), I booked an hour with a driving school, just to gain confidence. There'll be a BSM driving school within a mile of you in any town, and they'll no doubt be delighted to take your money. Oh, and specify an automatic car, the default here will be a manual.
posted by punilux at 12:44 PM on July 21, 2005

Yep, I was surprised at how easily I adapted. The instinctive things flip over without too much effort (checking mirrors, etc), but you should avoid narrow roads or single-lane entrances to multi-storey car parks until you get a sense of how much of the car is on either side of you.

You should also be careful when going back onto the road after breaks. My wife drove out of a petrol station in rural Ireland and turned into the right-hand lane. It might be worth putting a sticker on the wheel or console that says 'LEFT' or has an arrow pointing left. But you'll have more trouble with roundabouts than driving on the left.

Other tips: rent a car from an airport rather than, say, central London. While you'll encounter faster roads earlier on, they'll be wider, less chaotic, and more forgiving.

Some people say 'get an automatic'; I'm not quite sure. If you're comfortable with a manual car, but ordinarily drive an automatic in the US, getting a stick-shift and having to adopt slightly unfamiliar routines may subconsciously help you adapt.
posted by holgate at 12:59 PM on July 21, 2005

It's not so bad, you can adapt fairly quickly. I did it in the Cayman Islands (British West Indies) with a Hyundai Atos. The Atos is pretty much a moving lunchbox with no detectable power steering, but it was way fun. I only had to really think hard about it when entering/using traffic circles and turning into shopping centers from a main road.

Of course, traffic circles here in the U.S. tick me off just as much, and I more often than not am on the correct side of the road.
posted by GreenTentacle at 1:00 PM on July 21, 2005

One last thing: get whoever's in the passenger seat to guide you on where the left edge of the car is. The sooner you get your lane position sorted, the less likely you are to drift towards the kerb.
posted by holgate at 1:05 PM on July 21, 2005

Are the pedals reversed when going from one side to the other?
posted by sudama at 1:23 PM on July 21, 2005

As far as lane position is concerned, work out which side of the lane you (the driver) need to be on, and make sure you're looking down that wheel track (imagine it if there isn't a visible one).

I switch back and forth between left/right hand drive all the time, US - UK - Australia, and it's not a problem. About the worst for me is when there's no other traffic, no parked cars, and a turn out of a one-way street.

Oh, and traffic lights -- in the US, many states have "you can turn on red after stopping". In the UK, this is very much not legal unless otherwise signposted.

On the whole, though, relax and enjoy your trip. You'll come home with some more (amusing) anecdotes, that's for sure ;)
posted by 5MeoCMP at 1:33 PM on July 21, 2005

Yeah - it really is a much smaller issue than people make out. All you have to do is prime yourself so that you know which lane to turn into from a junction otherwise your head will explode everytime you come to one.

sudama: you can't be serious....
posted by forallmankind at 1:37 PM on July 21, 2005

ditto holgate on the roundabouts - my friend just came back from Europe and said she pretty much reenacted that scene in National Lampoons European Vacation - "kids, it's Big Ben!"
posted by forallmankind at 1:40 PM on July 21, 2005

jontyjago high lighted what I think is the greatest danger--I travel back and forth from the US and UK or Ireland regularly--the most dangerous period is when it stops being an effort and in your consciousness--my closest calls are after the first several weeks when I spontaneously revert to old habits when I am tired, preoccupied or have to respond immediately--leaving the house first thing in the morning and turning into the wrong lane is a fright --I also have difficulty backing onto a roadway--something about looking into the rearview mirror or over my shoulder and then trying to remember from which direction autos are coming confounds me . . Good luck
posted by rmhsinc at 2:08 PM on July 21, 2005

I was very scared about this in New Zealand, then pleased that it took only 15 minutes for it to feel natural to drive on the "wrong side". The thing that gave me the most trouble was the turn signal - it wasn't on the opposite side, but I expected it to be. Or vice versa, I forget which.
posted by Nelson at 2:18 PM on July 21, 2005

I did this when I went to the U.S. It was easier keeping track of things when there was light traffic, but the hardest thing I found was remembering to stick on the right to be in the slow lane.

I've grown up with the idea that I should stick to the left if I'm not driving as fast or aggressively as the other traffic, and it was tough keeping all the cars to my left.

Not to mention that I was in Texas, driving a small car, and everyone else was driving monstrous SUVs.
posted by tomble at 2:55 PM on July 21, 2005

I got a bike and cycled around until I got the hang of it - the advantage of the cycle was that I could just hop onto the footpath when traffic got hairy, or use the crosswalks if the intersection was busy, until my reflexes adjusted.
The dangerous thing is that your reflexes are off - you go into a busy intersection and your "danger areas" are all clear (because they're the wrong lanes), while any car that is going to hit you is going to come out of a "Safe zone" that you expect to be an empty lane.

Because of that, I think congested traffic moving at a snails pace can actually be safer than mostly-clear roads :)
posted by -harlequin- at 4:27 PM on July 21, 2005

Done it on a long vacation to England. After a long transatlantic flight, I nearly get killed at the first roundabout going out of Heathrow (note to airport access road designers: simpler is better especially for switch-over drivers).
I adapted pretty quickly-like within the first half hour behind the wheel. The biggest issue was driving on empty country roads because my brain would flip back to US driving in the mode of "driving in the left lane of the two lane half of a 4 lane divided highway" and I had to resist the instinct to keep right. At night, if I saw another car coming at me, I'd have a fleeting moment of panic that they were driving the wrong way on a highway.
posted by plinth at 4:39 PM on July 21, 2005

As others have said, it is pretty easy. Though I agree with plinth about country roads making you mentally revert to driving on the side of the road you are used to. It can cause momentary panic when you see an oncoming car. And I almost died after a 3 hour drive on empty country roads when I started to pull out onto a highway and looked right instead of left for oncoming cars. But I don't think one would make that mistake too many times without it ending very badly.
posted by McGuillicuddy at 5:08 PM on July 21, 2005

sudama, the pedals are exactly the same.
posted by redteam at 5:42 PM on July 21, 2005

have the passenger remind the driver when turning or pulling out of a parking lot/driveway. It's less likely that both of you will forget than that one of you will forget.

crosswalks can be dangerous too, since your brain expects the cars to be approaching from the opposite direction, and it's easier to end up on autopilot while walking.
posted by clarahamster at 6:05 PM on July 21, 2005

What I found helpful while driving alone was tilting the left rear-view mirror all the way to the ground, so that I could easily see the curb. You don't really need that mirror (when driving on the left), and on narrow, precarious NZ or Scotland mountain roads, it was additional reassurance that I wasn't about to tip off the cliff.

With a passenger I just told them to make sure I wasn't driving like an idiot.
posted by nev at 6:35 PM on July 21, 2005

Using a roundabout for the first time can be a little bit tricky - especially large ones during heavy traffic. Once you get used to them, however, you will miss roundabouts upon your return to the US.

You should exercise caution in parking lots. If you turn a blind corner in a parking lot while an oncoming car is doing the same, your first instinct will be to swerve right and their first instinct will be to swerve left (their left=your right).

Other than that (and the excellent points mentioned above about country roads, checking for oncoming traffic and slightly embarrassing signal/wiper mix-ups) you should be fine.

As a side note, driving on the 'wrong' side of the road is much easier in cars/trucks than in motorcycles.
posted by cup at 7:23 PM on July 21, 2005

I was paranoid about driving in the UK when I went there for a monthlong work project, because I'm a very fastidious (and aggressive) driver and was afraid my brain would explode. I had planned to just get rides from everyone else. But shortly I was in the situation where it would just be much better if I drove, and I did. It really was no big deal, in fact I never had any problems, particularly because they design the roads to prevent you from ending up on the wrong side (e.g. roundabouts).

The biggest danger was when I came out of driveways, especially backing out them, a couple times I drove away on the wrong side only to find another motorist patiently staring me down in the lane. In fact, any time you're on a small road or driveway or parking lot is when you need to be the most cautious. And I mean creeping along.

Shifting with the left hand was weird, but fortunately the H shift pattern is the same as are the A-B-C pedals.

Mmmmm, Little Chef ....
posted by intermod at 7:46 PM on July 21, 2005

Driven in england, ireland, and new zealand. Never had a problem or thought about it twice.

Shifting with your left hand is more of an adjustment, but also not a big deal.
posted by justgary at 10:23 PM on July 21, 2005

I've seen recommendations that say you should wear your watch on your other wrist.

Or you could do what my family did when I was a kid and vacationing in England -- the whole family would shout to my stepfather "THINK LEFT, GORDON! THINK LEFT!" the first time we got in the car each day, and then any other time he wavered.
posted by Vidiot at 12:05 AM on July 22, 2005

The funniest thing I find, is confusion about naming left/right turns. I tend to call the turn across traffic a "left", even though its the right-turn when driving on the left. And this is after living in left-side countries for over 2 years!

Other problem I have is a tendency to drive too far over on the curb-side. Not sure what that's about, but one possible influence is our car is too big. Didn't expect that when we ordered it, sight-unseen.

The turn-signal is aggravating. But I hear that some cars have this changed even in right-side places. We only get automatics for left-side countries. Not willing to mess with manual in the left hand!

I'm not the best example, I didn't drive for the 18 months in the UK (expired US license). But I watched my partner drive, and definitely worked on making myself think left-sidedly.
posted by Goofyy at 1:07 AM on July 22, 2005

I'm from the UK and owned my first (and only) car when I lived in France, having learnt to drive and borrowed cars in Britain. Adapting was fine, apart from scaring the crap out of myself the first time I drove on small dark roads at night by driving the first half mile on the left (no traffic around, thankfully).

The most difficult thing was when I brought it back to the UK for a holiday - driving a left hand drive car on left lane roads is a nightmare, you can't see properly.
posted by altolinguistic at 1:09 AM on July 22, 2005

Response by poster: Well, thanks for all the great answers/stories/words of encouragement. It sounds like it won't be too bad. Two things I'm not worried about: shifting with the left hand, because it's going to have to be an automatic car because I can't drive a manual, and I don't think the roundabouts will give me too much trouble, because there are two of them here in the Maine town where I live, and I drive on them every day.
[just beware, though, if you are in the UK in late September, of two crazed sisters in a car arguing over which side of the road to be on]
posted by JanetLand at 5:28 AM on July 22, 2005

just one thought janet -- don't know how old you are, but like the US, if you're under 25, get ready to pay through the nose for insurance on that rental. a few years back i was in the UK and had a 2 day layover. decided to rent a car to get around an see stuff, and was shocked about the extra cost. it was still worth it though.

posted by quadrinary at 7:50 AM on July 25, 2005

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