Driving right on the left side of the road
October 29, 2012 7:42 PM   Subscribe

Canadian wishing to drive in Scotland and the Hebrides - never drove on the left side before - how to prepare?

Next summer I plan a tour of the North Atlantic countries and in the final segment I will be renting a car and driving through Scotland from Aberdeen to Oban, take the ferry to the outer Hebrides, then return to Glasgow via Ullapool.

Exciting, no?? Well, I'm already fretting about the driving. I've been driving all over the world - but on the right. How do I prepare? Surely there are other MeFites who have taken driving vacations on the unusual side of the road.

I'm a visual person, so I've started to watch driving videos on YouTube (lots about driving in Scotland) and I also read up a bit on eHow.

I would love to read your tips, advice, encouragement and caution about driving in other left-driving countries (UK, NZ, Japan etc) or specifically in Scotland. And if you have visited this fine country, tell me about the sights I should not miss. I will be seeing the Shetlands and the Orkneys a few weeks earlier, but by boat. Thank you in advance.
posted by seawallrunner to Travel & Transportation around Scotland (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: When I worked in Japan one summer I drove occasionally. I did no preparation beyond getting an International Driving Permit. I had just two minor issues:

1. My lane positioning instincts required adjustment, and I had to focus more on lane positioning than I usually do. Fortunately, the car was small.

2. I often mixed up the windshield wiper and turn signal controls.

That was it, though. Everything else felt quite natural.
posted by Serf at 7:55 PM on October 29, 2012

Best answer: It's not too difficult... the only time I'd be extra cautious is when you're leaving a parking lot or driveway, as I think that's where I'd be most inclined to take the right lane instead of the left.

You're probably most likely to screw up when you're the only one on the road - but the good thing is, you're the only one on the road, so hopefully safe. Otherwise you just follow what the other vehicles are doing.

Have a great trip.
posted by backwards guitar at 7:57 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: i've driven in england and scotland on a few trips, without any forethought or preparation. there's really not much difference to it. i probably tend to drive about 5mph slower than i normally would on american roads. parallel parking is a whole lot easier tho!
posted by violetk at 8:05 PM on October 29, 2012

Best answer: I find it takes about a day to switch, but after that it's fairly easy. Scotland is not terribly difficult to drive in, comparable to backcountry BC. There are few multi-lane motorways. The Hope-Princeton highway is what driving through the highlands feels like. You should not count on being able to drive much faster than the posted road speeds and will often be doing less.

Probably the biggest thing that throws people from NA are the roundabouts. I'd recommend watching some instructional Youtubery. The major rule is that people in the roundabout have right of way---the drivers entering always yield.

Also, the default car in the UK (in most of Europe) is a manual transmission. If you want an automatic, be sure to specify that when you rent. It will cost more.
posted by bonehead at 8:18 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also be prepared for a slight mental switch when you come back to right-side driving. Generally takes me about a day to get used to left, then a day to get used to right again.

And yeah, like Serf, I tend to turn on the windshield wipers when I meant to signal a turn.

One more thing with driving in another country. The road signs will be different. Well-designed ones should be easily understood, but you may be more comfortable with looking them up and learning them ahead of time.
posted by dorey_oh at 8:32 PM on October 29, 2012

Best answer: Just to reiterate others, it's not as difficult/weird as you think it will be, your brain adapts pretty quickly, so quickly in fact that when you get home driving on the right seems odd. The only freak outs are when someone parks the wrong way, common in Scotland and you have a moment of confusion that a car is headed straight for you.

Here in north America you use about six percent of your brain to drive, you'll be surprised how much processing power you can summon behind the wheel.
posted by Keith Talent at 9:59 PM on October 29, 2012

Best answer: Standard advice, that I've mentioned here before: put a post-it on the centre console with an left-pointing arrow and LEFT! in big shouty letters. Pulling out from being parked or driveways or petrol stations is definitely where the muscle memory tries to take over and you'll instinctively swing into the right lane, especially on quieter roads. Hence the post-it.

Road position, looking the appropriate way at junctions, mirrors etc. should click after a day or so. Roundabouts should be okay if you follow the Highway Code's handy diagram. (Basically, on a two-lane roundabout: 0 to 180 degrees, outer lane; 180 to 360 degrees, inner lane.) The rest of the Highway Code is worth reading too, just to explain road markings and signalling conventions.

The roads in the Highlands are generally smaller and quieter -- if you go exploring, you may find yourself on a single carriageway with sheep being driven the other way. The downside is that the locals know these roads like the back of their hand and may drive them like they're in a rally. (The A85 from Dundee to Oban is also a favourite of motorcyclists.) Be aware that even rural roads may have speed cameras: British drivers complain about them, but those Highland A roads are notorious for accidents.
posted by holgate at 10:03 PM on October 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Having a GPS mounted on the windscreen helped me so much in this situation. It is especially helpful when turning, it shows you exactly where you are supposed to be turning to, rather than you having to sort out your left and right.

It is also helpful in general by removing the need to concentrate on navigating and looking for road signs. It will also display (pretty reliably) how fast you should be going, very helpful as speed signs are scarce. Actually, that's another point - learn how fast you are supposed to go on particular road types, this is something you are apparently supposed to know.
posted by peppermintfreddo at 10:49 PM on October 29, 2012

Best answer: It's "easy," I drove twice in England, once with a manual transmission. The thing that scared me in anticipation and I didn't know: the pedals are in the same place. The weirdest bits were left and right turns across traffic. Sometimes I would get momentarily crossed up, but never in a dangerous way, and I didn't take chances, being more than happy to drive too far and loop back if I wanted to deal with traffic a different way. Furthermore, the driving signage was/is 1000% better than in the US, so getting around involved many fewer question marks in my head than I was worrying about. I imagine Canada would be more like the UK in that regard.
posted by rhizome at 10:50 PM on October 29, 2012

Best answer: I'd agree with all the previous comments and add one on a different aspect: navigation. On a similar trip to yours I was caught out by the smaller scale of Scotland compared to BC and western Canada - we would be at the next turn or landmark before we expected, leading to a few quick lane-changes and U-turns to get to where we needed to be. What looks like a significant road on the map may only be a 12 ft. wide strip of tarmac, etc.

No need to make life on the other side of the road more difficult than it needs to be, get used to the different road signs early and pay attention to the kms as you drive.
posted by N-stoff at 10:53 PM on October 29, 2012

Best answer: For me, sitting in the 'wrong' side of the car is always much more difficult than driving on the 'wrong' side of the road. I would often try and change gear with the door handle! Lane positioning takes a bit of time - look in the wing mirrors to check that you're not way over to one side.

Another thing to bear in mind driving in the Highlands and Islands is that there are many single track roads with passing places and there will be sheep wandering about on them. So drive slowly and after you turn every corner have a quick glance as far up the road as you can see to find out what's ahead.

If you are used to driving on mostly motorways or large roads you may find it a little more tiring than you expect simply because the road will never be straight for very long. Just make sure you take regular breaks - but then you'll be doing that anyway to appreciate the scenery! Have fun!
posted by neilb449 at 12:19 AM on October 30, 2012

Best answer: I'm from Canada, and we spend a couple or three months each year in Japan, which drives on the left.

Usually the first couple of days in Japan I tell myself "keep left! keep left!" turning at an intersection, and the first couple of days back in Canada I tell myself "keep right! keep right!"

It has worked so far.

The only tricky bit is passing other cars - making sure not to pass on the inside.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:36 AM on October 30, 2012

I also recall when I first started driving in Japan many years ago, it was difficult to get used to how narrow the roads are.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:38 AM on October 30, 2012

Best answer: I actually just asked a question about learning to drive right handed here in BC earlier this week, and tested/bought a vehicle today. Not quite the same, but a few useful ideas:

-Spend a lot of time sitting in the vehicle before driving. Make sure you know where everything is ie. headlights, windshield wipers, air control. Get your mirrors perfect.

-Simplest way of keeping your lane position: think of the right side of your body as leaning against the lane divider.

-Since you have until next summer, take every advantage to drive weird, awkward, or difficult vehicles. I'm convinced that the reason I found it so easy is related to the fact that I spent the previous 2 years driving an ancient, giant pickup truck with a windowless canopy creating permanent blind spots on either side.
posted by mannequito at 1:46 AM on October 30, 2012

Best answer: Just got back from a trip to the west of Ireland. Didn't take us long to adapt to driving on the other side - in addition to the other hints, you need to remind yourself that the car is mostly to your left, not mostly to your right, otherwise you'll tend to scrape curbs etc.

The bigger adjustment was how narrow the roads were, and how little clearance people seemed to need to drive. I'm used to seeing cars slow to a crawl when they have to "squeeze" through an opening a foot or two wider than their car; in Ireland people drove past each other at 30mph with less clearance, regularly.

I normally drive a stick here in the US, and using my left hand was not a problem. But if you've never driven a standard, a rental in Scotland is probably not the time to learn.
posted by mr vino at 2:14 AM on October 30, 2012

Best answer: I'm afraid I don't drive but I can second the single track road comment, and answer the last bit of your question.

from Aberdeen to Oban

How are you going to do this? I'd suggest heading up Deeside or Strathdon, past the hulk of Bennachie and stopping off in some of the little towns. There's also interesting archaeological stuff to visit in this area (recumbent stone circles, Pictish symbol stones and souterrains) and several castles (Cragievar, Corgarff). You can also get your photo taken with this. Then this route would take you over the Lecht to Tomintoul and thence to Aviemore (tourist central, and best avoided), along Loch Laggan (passing the castle where they filmed "Monarch of the Glen") and down to Fort William (definitely not a place to linger) before following the coast to Oban.

then return to Glasgow via Ullapool

North of Ullapool are the areas called Assynt and Coigach. They are beautiful, geologically fascinating and (relative to the rest of Scotland) do not get too busy with tourists in summer. It is my all-time favourite holiday destination, so if you can linger around there for a while and maybe climb a couple of hills then absolutely do that.

If you have lots of time on your drive south, you'll probably want to head south out of Ullapool, passing the intimidating mountain of An Teallach, and driving through the beautiful scenery around Loch Maree and Torridon depending on how much time you've got. The gardens at Inverewe are worth a quick stop, if that's your thing, and there are various old WWII and Cold War relics that can be visited in this area.
posted by Talkie Toaster at 3:26 AM on October 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Nthing others re: it's not so bad being on the left. The driver seat is on the other side, too, so the experience is not so different.

However, I'd really emphasise neilb449's point - in the rural hebrides, you will likely be driving down single lane roads, which the locals will tend to tear down at breakneck speeds (I've never understood why we Brits drive faster in places with limited space and visibility, but we do). Also, familiarise yourself with the procedures for navigating roundabouts (i.e. who to give way to) - there are a lot of those here, and I believe there are not many in North America.

Enjoy! You've picked the best part of the country, IMHO.
posted by dumdidumdum at 3:45 AM on October 30, 2012

Best answer: Best advice I received was to 'Keep the center line outside the drivers side window". Great trick.

Also, I HIGHLY recommend getting an automatic. It's amazing how the muscle memory is effected (instead of pulling towards you to downshift from 3rd to 2nd, you push away. I actually got sore from using my muscles differently). Also it's one less thing to think about. Worth every penny.
posted by jeporter99 at 5:47 AM on October 30, 2012

Best answer: The most likely times for making mistakes I"ve found when driving on the "other" side (I"m Australian) is when you first get into the car for the day. I have a tendency to revert to the usual side of the road (left for me).

I think the difficulty in Scotland will be to try yourself to pull to the left when you see an approaching car on the narrow backroads.

But to be honest its really not that difficult. Its surprising how easy it is to just "mirror" your usual motions.
posted by mary8nne at 6:07 AM on October 30, 2012

Best answer: Watch your position in lane, you mental map of where the bulk of the car is in comparison to you is off and it is easy to drift over lanes or get thrown off when parking and turning. Also it's actually easier to drive in traffic because you just follow the car in front basically it will be when you are driving on unmarked quiet roads and in car parks that you will find yourself defaulting to the "wrong" side so watch out for that.

Remember when in doubt just take a second and remind yourself where you are. The traffic behind you can wait a millisecond longer so you can safely turn or do a round about or pull out into traffic.

I have always been a terribly nervous and not very good driver and travel between Australia and the US a lot and find the switches easy to handle (and have never had an accident) as long as I check myself at major intersections or before doing a tricky maneuver.

Get an Automatic if possible unless you are really used to manuals trying to get the rhythm of changing gears on the other side for the first time can throw people off, my husband won't drive a stick/manual when we are in Australia as he mainly drives Automatics, so stick with what you know.
posted by wwax at 8:01 AM on October 30, 2012

Best answer: All comments above are good. Expect about a day for your new driving habits to kick in. Immersion helps.

CAUTION: Road construction on the left side - the side you're driving on - can sometimes force you into the right lane. When that happens, your brain can actually "switch gears" and let you momentarily think you're supposed to be driving on the right side. (Yes, even if you're sitting on the right side of vehicle!) Only the oncoming traffic will remind you. Trust me on this one.

P.S. On your trip south from Ullapool, see if you can manage a detour through Plockton. Amaze yourself at the size of the royal palms growing along the roadway that skirts Loch Carron. The warmth of the Gulf Stream which helps these babies grow also produces the bus-size rhododendron (and myriad tropical plants) at Inverewe Gardens. The cullen skink (smoked haddock soup) they serve in their cafe is to die for!
posted by John Borrowman at 8:59 AM on October 30, 2012

Best answer: The thing about a manual is that it isn't mirror image. It is the same shift pattern, not flipped left for right, just shifted with your left had instead of the right. Switching shift hands was actually the hardest part for me. My left hand doesn't have that muscle memory. So, unless you're a confident manual user willing to do that adjustment at the same time, an automatic can save a lot of hassle.

I'd also suggest the lowlands to the east if you have time. We had a lot of fun in Elgin and in the Strathspey. Very different from the highlands and the Hebrides, both geographically and culturally.
posted by bonehead at 9:48 AM on October 30, 2012

Best answer: One thing I noticed when visiting the UK was it took some effort to remember which side of the car the other drivers are on. Often, when I started to do something like turn through an intersection, I would find myself making eye contact with the passengers in the other vehicles. I had to concentrate to remember who I should be looking at.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 2:23 PM on October 30, 2012

Best answer: Just to say, I did this in reverse, on a three week driving holiday in the US last year. Was really worried about driving on the "wrong" side, but found it pretty easy - after a day in the passenger seat, I did all the driving. Helps to have a passenger keeping an eye out too though, just in case!
posted by prentiz at 3:14 PM on October 30, 2012

Best answer: From my experience of regularly changing countries & thus sides of the road, I have the following tips:

I found it really helpful to bring to the front of my conscious mind at the beginning of each journey which side of the road I was driving on today, by singing a 'Drive on the LEFT (or right)' song. Everyone in the car had to join in.

The only times when I nearly had a disaster was when joining a dual carriageway - it is SO easy to accidentally go the wrong side of the central reservation.
posted by cantthinkofagoodname at 3:24 PM on October 31, 2012

Best answer: Congrats on making the effort to reach the Outer Hebrides, you won't regret it. Once you reach Barra or Uist you'll find the roads north alternate between normal and single lane, so just look out for the two most important signs: Single Track Road Ahead and Passing Place. Take care going from the normal road to the single track, reduce speed and watch for oncoming traffic. Once on the single track passing places should be used properly. Always pull in to the passing place on your left or opposite a passing place on your right to allow an oncoming car to pass you. And just as importantly pull in to a passing place on the left if there is a car close behind you. Nothing drives the locals madder than being stuck behind tourists dawdling along looking at the scenery while they want to get home on roads they know like the back of their hands and drive them as such, speedily. Remember to indicate. Either car driving towards each other on a single track road is obliged to give way, generally it's just a matter of who reaches a convenient passing place first. It can lead to a funny dance of politeness as oftentimes both cars will pull in and drivers sit there looking at the other, neither motorist moving. A flash of the headlights will say "you go!" and generally resolves the stalemate or break the deadlock yourself and drive on first. Always give a wee wave of acknowledgement when someone lets you pass and they'll do likewise, it's all very friendly and you'll soon be nonchalantly doing it like a local in no time. And look out for sheep, they pay no mind to cars and can be found lying in the middle of the road on blind corners, happy to stare you down as you screech the brakes within inches of their stupid looking faces. And they'll likely take their time moving, don't bother tooting the horn, it'll only make them move slower. You might come across a whole flock being herded by a local crofter to pastures new with collie dogs and dozens of the wooly creatures hurtling towards you. Slow your car to a stop and wait for them to pass by, grin and wave to the shepherd and use the time to take an amusing picture through your window so you can Facebook it with the caption "Rush hour in the Outer Hebrides!" To be honest it's a doddle driving up here, far easier than the city or dual carriageway, you'll enjoy it don't worry. Oh and the roadsigns are mostly in Gaelic but that just adds to the fun. PS if you make it to the very far north of Lewis pop in for a cup of tea and I'll show you Harris Tweed being woven on my loom if you're still in one piece after the drive...
posted by veryape at 1:20 PM on November 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: KokuRyu - what lane do you use to pass? still the outside lane, eg the one closest to the midline?
(gosh, so happy I am asking these silly questions 6 months before my trip, and not on the day-of)
posted by seawallrunner at 6:38 PM on November 1, 2012

Response by poster: thank you all for your responses !!!

I will be renting an automatic car, I made sure of this. I will be in the Faroes during the week before where I will be driving standard, just like I do here at home in Vancouver. I want to put all chances on my side and make the self-driving in Scotland as easy as possible.

Thank you for the recommendations on what to see during the trip. I love to take landscape photographs and am excited to drive in the Hebrides and the Highlands. And I have bookmarked several sites and borrowed several books in preparation for the trip. I leave near the end of May and will travel for over a month. The pleasure is in the research, even more than in the journey - so please keep the reccos coming !!

Thank you again everyone. You all rock.
posted by seawallrunner at 6:45 PM on November 1, 2012

Best answer: what lane do you use to pass? still the outside lane, eg the one closest to the midline?

To the right, very explicitly. If you're on a dual carriageway and someone's chugging along well below the speed limit in the rightmost lane (say, towing a caravan) you can switch lanes and gradually accelerate past, but you can't "undertake" by swinging out and back in.

Renting an automatic is smart, because beyond the hassle of remembering how to shift. it's sufficiently different to reinforce the mental shift to the other side.
posted by holgate at 8:00 AM on November 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

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