Help an American learn to drive on the opposite side of the road
July 8, 2017 3:55 PM   Subscribe

I'm an American who is going to Scotland for a holiday and I'm considering renting a car for a portion of the trip. I have never driven a car on the left hand side of the road. I have driven motorbikes in the left hand side in Asian countries , no problem but I'm a little concerned about the learning curve for an automobile. I'm asking you, the hive, for tips and advise on being comfortable with driving on the left.
posted by citybuddha to Society & Culture (33 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
One thing you may already be aware of, but if not: most cars in the UK, including rentals, are manuals. So if you've only driven automatic, like me, you may want to specify that when you make the booking - the daily rate will likely be higher, though.
posted by HumuloneRanger at 4:03 PM on July 8, 2017 [7 favorites]

You'll be fine on the roads, it's the parking lots that'll get you. Be careful in the parking lots!
posted by fshgrl at 4:13 PM on July 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

I found the hardest things were
- shifting with my left hand on roundabouts
- turning from one streets onto two way streets

I had a moment of terror the first time where I realized I hadn't considered if the pedals were flipped as well. They are not.
posted by JPD at 4:13 PM on July 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

As someone who's frequently switched the other way - from the UK to Europe, the learning curve is OK. You'll be driving very consciously to start with, but your brain will adjust pretty well in an hour. I'd agree that you should go with an automatic if that's what you drive, because that's an extra learning curve you don't need. And avoid getting distracted - don't get into a conversation with one of your passengers, for example. Basically you'll be fine.
posted by pipeski at 4:14 PM on July 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Got passenger? That helps. I have done the reverse, both solo (first time) and with passenger. Roundabouts are the areas of greatest confusion for me, otherwise no real problems while on the road, as other traffic will give you the cues. Entering the road from a carpark or servo is the biggest danger, especially if traffic is light. Basically, best tip I can give is to cut out anything that interferes with your concentration, so you can focus on driving.
posted by GeeEmm at 4:15 PM on July 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

In my experience it's super scary for the first half day but then you get used to it. Try to start out in a small town or the countryside and you will be okay.

One other good thing to know about driving in Scotland is about the existence of single track roads. They're about the size of a country dirt road in the US but intended for two way traffic. We nearly had a nervous breakdown the first time we encountered one until we figured out what was going on. There are turnouts every so often, though, and everyone generally pays attention and takes care to be safe and courteous, so it ends up working out. I really think they should mention these to you when you pick up the car.
posted by something something at 4:49 PM on July 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I ended up driving a rental in Sourh Africa a while back. I'm fairly ambidextrous, and left dominant, so driving stick was awesome. YMMV on this point.

I found the learning curve pretty straightforward. Driving in Canada uses very little of my brain CPU cycles now, but I had to be very intentional for the first while in SA, and mentally check my work. Watch the other cars on the road, and do what they do. Turn off the music, and don't be afraid to ask your passengers for quiet and calm until you get the hang of it. Approaching turns, I'd remind myself where I was turning, and made sure I looked where I wanted to go. (After doing the usual checks.)

We were in a rural area, and it there was more highway driving. Use extra caution around cyclists. If you've already done this on a motorbike, you'll catch on super fast.
posted by thenormshow at 5:18 PM on July 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I did this! It's really not bad at all.

Things to watch out for:

1) I scraped the fuck out of the left side of the car turning into a parking lot. Most of the car is not where you think it is. Be aware of that.

2) The place you will mess up is coming back onto the road from a parking lot. I swung out onto the right side a couple times. Being in rural Scotland, this was fine. Still, don't do that.

3) Slow lane on the motorway is the left lane.

4) Roundabouts are awesome and amazing and so efficient and I wish we had them in America.

5) You will go to the wrong side of the car, coming back to it. You may get a strange look from an elderly woman. Tell her I say hello.
posted by Automocar at 5:23 PM on July 8, 2017 [5 favorites]

A little post it note on the rear view: keep left with a big arrow pointing that way , :)
posted by hortense at 6:03 PM on July 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Have done this the opposite way. I am not a confident driver at the best of times, but surprised myself with how quickly I adapted. The three things I found trickiest were (1) roundabouts - it just feels wrong to go around them the wrong way (2) road placement - the edges of the car are not where you're used to, so you need to be quite conscious about staying in your lane (3) driving with little or no traffic around - I was fine when there was a car in front of me that I could basically follow, but if I found myself on an empty stretch of road it required active focus to stay where I was supposed to be.
posted by une_heure_pleine at 6:31 PM on July 8, 2017

Nthing the advice about the roundabouts needing extra care, as well as which way you automatically look when turning across traffic (same as when you're a pedestrian there!).

Also be possibly prepared to confuse your turn signal and windshield wipers a few times depending on how they're mounted.
posted by TwoStride at 6:40 PM on July 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Be careful with coming out of u-turns. The 2 times we ended up driving on the wrong side of the road, it was after we had made a u-turn. Thankfully this happened late at night when traffic was sparce.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 7:10 PM on July 8, 2017

By far the most difficult part is not knowing where the left hand side of the car is. Staying on the correct side of the road, turning, roundabouts and so on are all fine after the first few minutes. The constant tendency to drift to the left and parking are the nightmarish parts.

Concentrating on following the center line helps, but I don't think there's any trick besides practice. You can watch YouTube videos to learn how to go round roundabouts. Some people have an easier time than others, though. My boyfriend can switch to driving on the left without much stress at all. I can't. My mom, who learned to drive in the UK and has way more experience than my boyfriend, doesn't find switching back easy. (We're talking about going together to see my grandad. She said "I think I'm done driving in England, you can drive". I said "I think I'm done driving in England." and she said "Forget it, we're taking the bus.")
posted by hoyland at 7:10 PM on July 8, 2017

Related previous AskMe.
posted by bendy at 7:17 PM on July 8, 2017

I've never done this, but a tip that I thought would be useful is that the curb is always on your left hand.
posted by cnc at 7:26 PM on July 8, 2017

Figure out which side the control to the wipers is on before you get caught in the rain on the road.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 8:32 PM on July 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nth-ing about pulling out of driveways and parking lots into the street. MANY times I would get on the street on the wrong side. Either I'd realize it myself and jerk over to the correct side, or I'd see a car coming towards me in my lane ...

Apologies to all those people who encountered my driving in Britain. Yes, stupid American, right here.

And on the highway, stay out of the passing lane! Europeans know how to drive, and that means the passing lane is for passing, not for long distance cruising.
posted by intermod at 8:34 PM on July 8, 2017

Passenger to the gutter, driver to the middle of the road- always!
posted by freethefeet at 8:40 PM on July 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

To add to what everyone else has said, your turn signals and your windshield wiper control sticks will be switched!
posted by astapasta24 at 8:41 PM on July 8, 2017

Don't forget, when you go to make eye contact with the other drivers, they are not on the side of the car you expect them to be. So often, I went to make eye contact with other drivers, only to find myself looking at very confused front-seat passengers.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:34 PM on July 8, 2017

... and one more thing, pay the premium to remove the deductible on the hire(?) car. And check the exclusions, you may be surprised (unpleasantly) at what is not covered.

Don't be put off, having a car and being able to travel at a whim when and where you like is a great freedom. Thousands have done it, and there is absolutely no reason why you can't too!!
posted by GeeEmm at 11:12 PM on July 8, 2017

Bear in mind that there are some obvious - and not so obvious - ways in which road design in the UK slant towards those who have RHD vehicles (I know this because I live in Scotland and drive an LHD car). Things like car park tolls are obvious - but road junctions are less so. Draw a horizontal line to represent your main road and a vertical one representing a T junction - this version is pretty much neutral. But the UK has many more junctions where the angle at which the minor road meets the major one is less than 90 degrees - which makes it easier for a driver on the right side of the car to see.

With reference to Scotland specifically - bear in mind that we have only a 10th of the population density of England - and that most of the places away from the central belt (where having a car gets particularly useful) are a lot less than that. Scotland's big cities are also well served for public transport: leave your car at the edge and take a bus/train.

While most cars rented in the UK are stick shift - it is also absolutely possible to request an automatic - and I believe many American vistors do exactly that.
posted by rongorongo at 12:25 AM on July 9, 2017

To add to what everyone else has said, your turn signals and your windshield wiper control sticks will be switched!

If you pick the right rental car, this needn't be a problem. Just get something Continental.

Concentrate when leaving a roundabout. That's one time you might end up on the wrong side.
posted by pompomtom at 1:36 AM on July 9, 2017

I've been a passenger with Americans visiting Australia and driving on the opposite side of the road. I don't drive (unfortunately, considering) but I sat up front as the navigator/side of the road reminderer. The worst moments were turning from drive ways or minor roads into faster but less well trafficked roads. That's something to remember given the single track roads in rural Scotland. You don't want to be turning onto, say, the A9 without being sure which lane you need to be in.

If you don't have someone with you then think those through carefully. Very carefully, even if you have to pause and look at your right hand like I have to do in twister before you make the turn. There's no crime in being slow turning into a main road and it's a lot better than turning right into fast moving head on traffic because you didn't cross to the other side of the road. I still have flashbacks on that one.

They did just fine on busy highways, or any built up areas with enough traffic to keep things obvious. A screeching passenger (me) kept us alive the rest of the time.
posted by kitten magic at 1:45 AM on July 9, 2017

After a few days of hypervigilance and a few, "Well, that might've been catastrophic" moments, it suddenly clicked - nearly everything is exactly 180 degrees different. It sounds stupid, but it worked for me. Sit to the right, drive on the left, yield to traffic approaching from the right, pass on the right. Other than a speeding ticket in Peterborough, I spent 5 years in the UK without a mishap of my own making.

Your left front tire (tyre) is liable to take a beating, because you will likely be driving at the extreme left edge of the road until you feel more comfortable.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 3:52 AM on July 9, 2017

One thing that helps is to remember that the driver's shoulder is always as close to the centre line as possible (this is true in any country). So if you're on the right side of the car then that right shoulder should be closest to the centre line of the road (most roads won't have lines though!). I think of it like keeping your right hand on the wall when going through a maze. I'm always mentally hugging my shoulder to the centre of the road.

If on a motorway, the fast lane is on the right, btw. The exit is on the left. You pull over on the left.

The hardest thing for me (still) is that the roads are very narrow everywhere and people often park in them. You must ALWAYS be looking ahead for cars coming your way. If the cars are parked on your side of the road then YOU are the one that must pull over behind a parked car, flash your lights to signal to the other driver that they can come through. If you barge ahead, you both WILL be stuck in the one-lane section and you will be in the wrong.

In many situations there will be cars parked sporadically on both sides of the road. The person who has a parked car nearest ahead of them pulls over to let the other cars through.

Always wave or flash your lights to say thank you after somebody lets you through the one-lane portion.

You will get good at this, you'll have lots of practice. :)
posted by iamkimiam at 4:40 AM on July 9, 2017

Lots of good advice here. I just wanted to add that when I first drove in the UK on holiday, something that really helped me beforehand was watching YouTube videos - there are a lot of "learning to drive" basic videos put out by UK-based driving schools. I found that to be a good way to get familiar with what to do on a roundabout, traffic signs, road markings I was likely to encounter.

Nthing that I found roundabouts to be the most difficult, but just remembering to be on the left side of the road was not hard for me after a few minutes.
posted by cpatterson at 5:18 AM on July 9, 2017

I just got back from driving around rural Scotland!

Nthing that the most difficult part was dealing with the left hand side. Whoever wasn't driving got to be the designated look-out-er, and would (without panicking as much as possible) say "drifting" whenever the driver got to close to the edge. As others have mentioned, the roads are narrow. Often times the shoulder may be rocky (and thus can give you a flat) or boggy (and thus, you get stuck). So you really want to stay on the road.

For me, I also had a tough time adjusting and convincing I wasn't too far over to the *right*, and thus, would not be hit by on-coming cars.

Helpful tip: roads are graded. M roads are big, multi-lane divided roads. A roads are primary roads. They'll be wider, and have two lanes (most of the time; see, e.g., sections of the A855 on Skye which are one lane). However, again, they'll be narrower than you're used to, especially around lochs (Loch Ness and Loch Lommand have some tricky sections). B roads are a step down, and then C.

As mentioned, if you're going to some place like Skye, as well as over some bridges you'll have one-lane roads. There will be passing places to allow cars going through in the other direction. You can also use those to let more confident drivers pass you. (Ditto on say the A82 up from Glasgow: if you see a line forming behind you, pull into a parking place, and let people go around you).

Finally: I have had not one, but two incidents requiring a tow in Scotland. On my last trip, I got a flat on the side of Loch Ness, due to drifting to far to the left. On the one I just got back from, I ended up in a ditch on the side of a one-lane road (there was a blind spot without a good passing place, a car and I tried to play do-si-do, he got through, I didn't).

In both cases, people stopped to help, the tow truck came, everyone was friendly and understanding, and the car was otherwise fine. And, in both cases, we had great weather, and a view across Loch Ness/The Trotternish peninsula while we waited for the tow. So even worse case scenario, you'll be fine.
posted by damayanti at 5:48 AM on July 9, 2017

Things that helped me out when I drove in Ireland one vacation.
1) Right hand turns are the tricky ones now, where you have to watch oncoming traffic. Left turns are the easy ones.
2) It wasn't that hard to adapt.
3) Having the driver's side switched is extremely helpful, because in a lot of ways the driver's relationship to fixed points is the same. So in the US if you're driving, you're always tracking the center line of the road, which is on your left hand side. In left-side driving, the driver is still tracking the center line of the road, but that center line is on their right.
posted by Stewriffic at 6:31 AM on July 9, 2017

UK etiquette is always to do what you can to avoid impeding emergency service vehicles. So if you notice a fire engine or ambulance approaching from the rear then do what everybody else is doing, usually this means pull over to the left if it safe to do so, and then rejoin the flow after the car in front of you. In practice this just works because people know what to do. If you are stopped at traffic lights, stay where you are and they will drive on the wrong side of the road if they deem it prudent to do so. If you hear a siren at a junction be prepared to stop and give way.

Have a look at the highway code especially for the meanings of various signs and road markings, e.g. a solid white line in front of you at a junction means stop, double yellow lines at the kerb means no parking. UK road users are expected to know the highway code - most of it is the law, the rest is good practice. Finally, this should apply everywhere but give cyclists lots of room.
posted by epo at 6:40 AM on July 9, 2017

Lots of good advice above. I'll stress a couple items:

Practice. If possible, cruise around the rental car lot for a few minutes before hitting the road, just to get a feel for the car, the difference in visual reference, and the controls.

Navigation. If you have a companion, burden them with all the navigation. Having my wife handle all those details was a godsend on our trip. Do make sure you both agree on how you describe which exit to take on a roundabout. Arguing about what constitutes "straight through" is not a good way to start a holiday. :)

Navigation 2. If you are alone, do plenty of research in advance of your drive. A big help for me (even at home) if available in the locations you're travelling, is to look on Google Street View to get a visual reference of what to expect at scheduled turnoffs. This is especially true in the UK, where in our experience the street sign labels were spotty at best. "Virtually" drive the route a bit around your waypoints to identify major landmarks that can help indicate your turnoff or destination is approaching when you're actually there. There's also the small satisfaction of "Hey, that's the church I saw in Street View!" if you are as nerdy as I am.

Last thing: You will likely drive much slower than the locals. If you're on a small road, find a shoulder or other turnoff to pull over and let the locals pass you. They're usually patient (at least they were in Ireland) but they will appreciate you letting them pass, friendly waves were common when we did this.
posted by SquidLips at 9:56 AM on July 9, 2017

I have made the switch frequently and I find that the likelihood of finding yourself the wrong side of the road increases with how comfortable you are beginning to feel. You'll pay a lot of attention at first and after a while you'll start to relax and slip more into autopilot and that's where you find the autopilot is not fully reset.

It's worth remembering that you can just keep going round roundabouts until you have worked out what exit you want. Just keep indicating to that effect.

Chances are that the most economical rental car has a tiny engine. If you're going up into the Highlands make sure you either know how to drive an undermotorised car with manual transmission up hills and mountains or spring for something with a bit more power. In fact just spring for something with a bit of power because it will make joining motorways etc easier if you can actually accelerate.

I know people have recommended you hire an automatic. Do that but realise they are the exception held for overseas visitors and that they may have run out, in the way rental car companies occasionally fail to deliver on reservations. So if that were to happen and you know how to drive a manual in general but are less than confident see if they can give you a diesel - less likely to stall.

Be prepared for roads to be more narrow than you're used to/the idea that you'll have (and need - smaller vehicles) less space than you think.

Car parks/parking spaces are sized for the generally smaller vehicles.
posted by koahiatamadl at 12:31 PM on July 9, 2017

I have one thing to add to the advice above: if you do rent a manual, make a habit of moving your left hand to the shifter before you have to change gears. The first time I drove on the left, I had a moment of panic when I needed to downshift when entering a roundabout, and I depressed the clutch and then my right hand hit the inside of the car door. It didn't take more than a second to get things right, but that second felt like an eternity. After the second time I did that, I realized that I should move my left hand onto the knob before I needed to shift. That did the trick.
posted by brianogilvie at 9:00 AM on July 10, 2017

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