Driving on the right (England) having only driven on left (USA)
August 29, 2018 7:19 AM   Subscribe

How many days to get used to roundabouts, looking right for oncoming traffic, just sort of everything being opposite? Have been to England about 10 times, but have barely ventured beyond the Home Counties. This October my wife and I would like to spend at least 10 days driving from extreme SW (Cornwall) or extreme SE (East Sussex/Kent) to Tyne and Wear. Driving between the major motorways doesn't worry me. Driving in/around big cities does. Thoughts? Advice?
posted by BadgerDoctor to Travel & Transportation around Manchester, England (35 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It's actually pretty easy to get the hang of it once you're going. The worst places, in my experience, are parking lots: they don't have the contextual signals that show you're meant to be on the left side of the road, and it's easy to forget when you're leaving. Be intentional about driving and you will be fine.
posted by kdar at 7:38 AM on August 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

Mr mcd and I have been to Ireland 4 times, and he did the all the driving. He adjusted quite quickly (within an hour easily) - you have to!
1. Get an automatic transmission - it will cost more, but you've got enough cognitive load remembering how to turn, where to look, etc.
2. At every turn, stop, or roundabout - say (out loud - we did for the first few hours) "Look right, keep left" This will remind you that oncoming traffic in your lane is coming from the right, and after completing your turn, to stay in the left lane.
If you stick to smaller roads, it's actually easier, as you're traveling as fast, and there's more time to think. However, at least in Ireland, those smaller roads often have virtually no shoulder, so when you see an oncoming lorry or tractor, scan quickly for driveway to ease into so they can pass you unscathed. In a few of the smaller towns, we actually folded in our side-view mirrors to save them being clipped off.
Have fun!
posted by dbmcd at 7:39 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

It took me less than an hour, really. I picked up a rental car in downtown Dublin (which, in retrospect, was a terrible idea -- should have picked up on the outskirts) and managed to get out of town on big terrifying roads full of traffic without much trouble, and by the time we were on little country roads a couple hours later, I was totally comfortable on the left side of the road. I did have to stop and think when I came to right-hand turns and when navigating parking lots (yep, lack of contextual signals), but I managed big-city roundabouts right off the bat.

And really, the worst thing that happens if you screw up in a roundabout is you go around again, and maybe some people honk at you.

Highways were easy; tollway less so because nobody informed me in advance how it worked (wasn't in the little "how to drive in Ireland" booklet that came with the car) and it was NOT WELL SIGNED. (I imagine these days rental cars come with toll transponders anyway.)

This was before widespread GPS, so my sister was reading a paper map for me and we were relying on road signs; I imagine with GPS it's even easier because you don't have to navigate as much while driving, and if you make a wrong turn, GPS will steer you back to the right path, instead of having to pull off and puzzle out where you went wrong and how to get back.

I'd make sure you read up a bit on the practicalities of driving in the UK (what time do gas stations close, do highways have rest stops, how do construction zones work), since those were the things where we were like, "Oh, shoot, um -- do gas stations have public bathrooms? Is that where we should stop to pee?" but we did manage to figure those all out on the fly. And, "Hello I'm a tourist how do I ____?" goes a long way.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:39 AM on August 29, 2018

I'm from the UK but have done a lot of driving on the "other" side of the road in cities and countryside. If you're a regular and confident driver at home then I don't see it taking much more than a day or so to get used to it.

Assuming you'll be in a local right-hand drive car then it mostly comes down to chanting "on the left" to yourself (or have your wife chant it to you) for the first few minutes and following the example of other traffic. It may be easier in a city as you're unlikely to find yourself totally alone without another car in sight as a reference.

Remember that in a local car, you need to be closest to the centre line, not your passenger! You will get caught out, but I've always found it helps to have your passenger stay alert as well and to issue reminders when coming up to junctions, crossroads, roundabouts etc. Try to get in the habit of looking both ways regardless of which way you are turning.

Also, where possible, pass navigation responsiblity to your wife - you'll have enough to occupy your mind staying on the left without having to pay too much attention to directions, GPS etc. Some clear instructions in advance (we're going left at the next big junction) would help. Good luck!

I'm sure it's a typo, but I've just reread your title, you might want to check which side you're driving on at the moment as well ;o)
posted by jontyjago at 7:41 AM on August 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

One option to cut out driving in cities would be to figure out which ones you plan to stop at and look up "park and ride" for that city. A lot of UK cities have this kind of scheme in place to cut congestion, its basically a car park on the edge of town with a regular bus service to the centre.
posted by biffa at 7:44 AM on August 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

Mrs Mogur and I drove through most of Scotland a few years back. Very much seconding the recommendation of getting an automatic transmission! Also, another trick that was handy to get my head on straight was to do watch what the car ahead of me was doing - and do the same thing. Just keep following people.

Note: 99% of the time you will be just fine - when you get in trouble is when you have to make a decision very very quickly, and you'll find yourself fighting your own reflexes. Don't be afraid to just pull over and let everyone pass you honking their horns and yelling quaint British obscenities. That'll give you time to think.
posted by Mogur at 7:47 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

My wife and I did this last year, and aside from the mind-melting experience of driving a car with brain-melting jetlag, it wasn't too bad. Yes, absolutely pay the premium for an automatic transmission.

The biggest issue for me was having the mass of the vehicle on the other side of my body, so my sense of peripersonal space was distorted. That took some getting used to.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 7:49 AM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

The best advice I received was: when you pick up the rental car to leave the airport, make sure there's somebody leaving the parking lot ahead of you, and just keep following them. City driving can be pretty easy if you just think of it as following other cars (and identifying what lane you're headed to by looking at the line of cars you're going to be traveling with)
posted by aimedwander at 7:49 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

The first, third, and hundredth time you reach for the turn signal and accidentally turn on the windshield wipers, remember this comment. =) Enjoy the trip.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:03 AM on August 29, 2018 [6 favorites]

We've done driving around Scotland twice, and it wasn't terrible. It probably took a couple of hours to get used to things? Actually staying on the correct side of the road wasn't bad. For turns, my husband and I would talk to each other ("I am now turning left, and will end up on that side of the road".

My main issue was spacial awareness of the left side of the car; I would end up drifting too far to the left, since I felt like I wasn't in the correct part of the lane (which led to a flat on the side of Loch Ness thanks to some very pointy rocks on the shoulder). My husband and I also did verbal confirmations with each other on this one (we found that very calmly saying "drifting" worked best here, since "Be careful" was vague, and any note of panic in the voice definitely didn't help).

Also: if you're doing any sort of rural driving, make sure you know how one lane roads work (there will be passing zones). And if you're driving on a ridiculously narrow A or B road somewhere, don't be afraid to pull over and let folks pass.
posted by damayanti at 8:04 AM on August 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

I've driven in a left-hand drive region (St. Croix) in cars with the steering wheel on the left (eg: American style), and it wasn't too bad. If your passenger or a computer can take the navigation load, that helps a bunch. The only place I really had trouble was left-hand turns (because those felt like a conventional turn from a one-way road, everything else was strange enough that it just worked).

I'm guessing it'll be way easier in cars with steering wheels on the right.

Interestingly, my parents just came to visit. The last two times I've driven with them in the car was St. Croix. I was driving us around, and in a parking lot I had a short moment of confusion of dodging left vs right. So clearly in those two separate week long visits I gained enough of the association of them with the strange driving that it got me for half a second.
posted by straw at 8:04 AM on August 29, 2018

Pick it your rental car from the outskirts of a city or an airport. Put a big sticky note with ← LEFT! on the dashboard. The places where you're most likely to slip up are pulling out of petrol stations onto relatively quiet roads, or trying to get into gated/ticketed car parks, where the alignment will mess with you.

Driving position is the biggest thing, because lanes are typically narrower than you're used to, even on A-roads, and scraping against the kerb isn't fun: line up the lane line with the bottom-right corner of the windscreen. Seconding the park and ride option for bigger places you're visiting for less than a day: town centres have one-way systems, bus lanes, pedestrianised areas and other things that will be stressful if you try to navigate them.
posted by holgate at 8:07 AM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

I just did this for the first time, and really didn't have any trouble with the side-of-the-road thing ITSELF. A bigger issue is a side effect of that, and the general foreign-ness of road flow and signage.

The side effect is that, in the US where we drive on the right side of the road from the left side of the car, we learn to orient ourselves and our perspective on the road with the understanding that the bulk of the car is on our right side. This means that the driver, looking forward, is kinda looking a bit to the right vs. the direction of travel, if you take my meaning.

I was never confused about side-of-the-road, but I DID find myself positioning myself too far to one side of the lane as a result of this shifted relationship. So watch for that.

The other aspect was much bigger, though. Signage, roundabouts, etc., are all pretty alien to US drivers, and required a great deal more adjustment for me. Even so, within a couple days I was pretty comfortable. Just be aware.
posted by uberchet at 8:14 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

I just did a driving holiday in Japan, which also drives on the left, and the in-built GPS and lane-line-crossing alarms were invaluable - I really could not judge how close I was to other cars on the left side of the vehicle, probably because the mirrors weren’t right. It was also great to have an automatic - rare in the UK, but perhaps bookable in advance. With the navigation and shifting out of the way, it was way easier to stay safe on the road. It was noticeably more mentally taxing and I took a lot more breaks. Plan for this.
posted by mdonley at 8:18 AM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Pro tip for rotaries: Most rotaries are multilane internally - two or sometimes three lanes. The internal lane you get into determines how far around you want to go. Know what route you are following out of the rotary, and look for clues as to what lane you are need to be in before you enter the rotary to exit at the right place. Let's say you are going 'straight' through the rotary on the A12, but the A123 peels off to the left, and the A88. Typically, the left lane/outer lane will be marked *on the ground* for the A123, and the center lane for the A12 and let's say the A88. There are frequently signs indicating your entry lane as well. It makes the rotaries MUCH easier if you know that.

Also, +1 on getting an automatic, and picking up your car outside of town so you have a more gentle ease-in into the whole thing - highways are ideal for this. Remember that highways have the "slow" lane on the left!
posted by scolbath at 8:21 AM on August 29, 2018

The internal lane you get into determines how far around you want to go

The rule I was taught when learning to drive (over 30 years ago but I think it still stands) is if there are 2 lanes and 3 or more exits (in addition to the approach you're on) the left-hand lane is for left and straight on and the right-hand lane is for right only.

This generally applies to smaller roundabouts as the bigger ones will have signs on the lanes or even a Get In Lane sign in advance.
posted by jontyjago at 8:34 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

I find that I normally adapt to driving on the wrong side pretty quickly although I will normally take a few seconds to orientate myself at the start of every journey. For me the danger has been in the first few days after I return home when I've noticed a tendency drive on the wrong side if my mind is wandering and I'm not paying attention.
posted by night_train at 8:40 AM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Its easy to adjust right away, but two things messed me up when I've driven in left-sided countries like South Africa:

1. After a while it starts to feel secondhand and then THAT's when you forget to drive on the left hand side. Try to stay mindful and don't fall in to instinctual driving, you'll end up on the right.

2. I kept hitting curbs while taking left turns from the left lane. Thank god for insurance I had no hubcaps on that side by the end of vacation.
posted by RajahKing at 8:50 AM on August 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

Put a big sticky note with ← LEFT!

A car I rented in Auckland had a little sign that said "look left" mounted just in front of the windshield (sorry, windscreen). It was very helpful. Adjusting happens quickly, but when you get too comfortable it’s easy to forget.

The easiest place to forget was first thing in the morning on country roads with no traffic.

The only time I have ever caused an accident was driving a left handed stick on a tiny mountain road. I came around a corner to find a truck bearing down on me and I just had too many things to keep track of and ended up swerving to the right instead of left. Now I won’t drive on the left unless I can get an automatic.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:56 AM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Slow lane on the motorways is the left lane. I had to guess that and I guessed correctly, but it's easy to mess up.
posted by Automocar at 9:22 AM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

When I moved to the UK, I found, like many others, that staying left was actually pretty easy. It's the change of perspective and knowing where the corners of the car are that is difficult. This is more important in the UK as roads tend to be narrower, and with more obstacles, than in the US. Parking spaces are smaller, too. One tip is to find reference points (like a bump on the dashboard or a crease in the hood) that let you know where the left and right edges are. Maybe have someone stand at the corner before you drive off, or (if it's safe to do so) gently edge onto the rumble-strips at the edge of the highway and note something that you can use as a reference. You can also look at the lane markings and road edge in the wing mirrors to see how close you are getting.

Agree with the other advice that a park and ride is usually a good idea if you want to visit a city centre. Most towns and cities of any size will have them. Saves stress and usually money compared to parking.

Be familiar with mini-roundabouts (or double mini-roundabouts, or even quintuple mini-roundabouts). These are marked by a large white dot in the middle of the road, and a blue mini-roundabout sign. At these, you give way to traffic coming from the right - which means traffic coming from the next road counterclockwise. This could mean traffic coming towards you, making a right turn in front of you has the right of way. (And if three cars come to a mini-roundabout at the same time, everyone will starve to death politely waving "no, you go first" at each other, or so the joke goes).

Here are the official guides for signs and road-markings. Worth a look as they differ substantially from those in the US. Speed limits are given in mph. If you don't see speed limit signs, then it is probably 30 if there are street lights, 60 on a two-lane road with no street lights, and 70 on a motorway or dual carriageway. If the speed limit differs from this, then you will see regular reminder signs.
posted by penguinicity at 9:23 AM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

I had the opposite experience. Moved to the USA from a left hand side driving country. It's easier than you think. Driving in traffic, you literally just follow the car in front. Parking lots & quiet roads can throw you off if there are no lane markings so take a second to double check. The hard part is mentally placing your car in the space around you as the mental map of where the bulk of it is has shifted be careful reversing, changing lanes etc & just take an extra moment to remind yourself. Try for a car with turning & reversing cameras if possible that helped me a lot as your blind spots shift.

It's OK to drive a tad slower down & take a second & mentally plan your route around a round about or off a confusing exit. I highly recommend going over the route on your phone before you go & I've even gone so far as to use google maps to check out confusing expressways in Chicago so I know what I'm getting into before I get there.

Be aware that in moments of panic you might pull the wrong way. Make sure to book an automatic car because trying to work a clutch at the same time might be too much.

This all makes it sound way harder than it is, seriously I'm a terrible, hesitant nervous driver & I managed the change no worries. If you're an accident free driver in the USA, you'll be fine. The fact that you're asking about it tells me you're conscious it will be different which lets me know you'll be fine, the problem is the over confident people that aren't aware of differences that screw it up.
posted by wwax at 10:04 AM on August 29, 2018

I'm sure a lot of this is touched on above, but...

Mostly pretty easy to deal with, but high-traffic (urban) driving scenarios can require quick decision-making and induce panic even if you've gotten the hang of driving in easier situations. Old habits die hard, but they're what emerges when you have to make snap decisions. So know your routes, avoid rush hour if possible, and be willing to miss your turn instead of making a panic turn.

Staying on the left once you're going is no problem. But when you turn, it's easy to forget which side you're aiming for and end up on the right. So that's something to keep in mind while, for example, turning into a parking lot.

Also wrt to turning, it's easy to forget to look the correct direction to make sure things are clear especially when you have to make a turn into a lane on the opposite side (the far lane instead of the near lane) so you should also consciously remind yourself to look both ways. Eg if you're making a right turn onto a street, you're going into the far lane, but your habit will be to look to the left for traffic in the intermediate lane instead of to the right. So beware and look both ways every time.

One thing that threw me was that they use white lines to separate directions of traffic, not yellow like in most of the US. Add to this that in a lot of places people park in both directions on both sides of two-way streets, and it can sometimes be very confusing to figure out if you've turned the wrong way on a one-way street. Or if you're on a one-way or two-way street.

The biggest hurdle though, is that most of the cars in the UK are manual transmission, and you have to shift with your left hand. This can be really challenging even if you have great touch with driving a stick in a left-hand drive car (shifting with your right hand). So get used to the smell of burning clutch, because you'll be in third or fourth when you think you're in first or second a lot of the time. You can find automatics, but they're somewhat rare, and they cost more.

Roundabouts are weird at first, but they're pretty easy to get the hang of.

In short, if you're a solid driver with decent mental flexibility and reasonable coordination you can safely drive pretty much right away, but there are a lot of potential "gotchas" to remain consciously aware of no matter how comfortable you feel.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 10:45 AM on August 29, 2018

it definitely FEELS terrifying as you're planning it, thinking about it, overthinking it, panicking about it, right up until you get in the car and just go. it is, as mentioned above, FAR easier when the roads are moderately busy because you're just following whoever is ahead of you and don't have to make any wild guesses about which lane goes where in a magical roundabout.

the one mistake i did embarrassingly make was the assumption that all the controls (pedals, manual shift) were the mirror image of US ones and not the exact same thing in the exact same usual locations, just ... on the other side of the car.
posted by poffin boffin at 11:03 AM on August 29, 2018

You may be helped by wearing a brightly colored wristband. Red = Port = Left & Green = Starboard = Right Many sailors wear tape on their shoes or wristbands to help them remember immediately, as accidents happen fast.
posted by theora55 at 11:08 AM on August 29, 2018

This is a minor thing, but in the UK it appears to be legal (in the daytime at least) for cars to be parallel parked in the "wrong" direction/facing oncoming traffic, which is not the case anywhere in North America that I know of.

In other words, if you imagine a two-way street running north-south, in the US/Canada, every car parked on the right side of the street is facing north, and every car parked on the left side is facing south.

The opposite pattern is not entirely true in the UK -- most cars parked on the right side of a north-south street would face south, and most on the left would face north, but there will be a random scattering of cars facing the opposite direction. (Example: a random London street where you can see two cars parked back-to-back in opposite directions on the same side of the street. The one on the left is parked facing oncoming traffic and violates North American parking norms.)

I mention this because the direction of parked cars tend to serve as a subconscious cue for the direction of traffic, so it's something to be aware of.
posted by andrewesque at 11:32 AM on August 29, 2018

One other thing, it might take a bit longer for your wife to get used to it if she often drives at home. It can be weirdly scary for passengers to suddenly find themselves facing that portion of the road whilst not having hands on the steering wheel. This can lead to some hyper-vigilant driving commentary whilst you both get the hang of things.
posted by freya_lamb at 12:01 PM on August 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Worth noting on the manual vs. automatic thing - in the UK, there are separate drivers' licenses for automatic and manual vehicles. If you're only licensed to drive an automatic, it's illegal for you to drive a manual (a manual license allows you to drive both). I'm not sure how this applies to visitors, though.
posted by parm at 12:27 PM on August 29, 2018

The first, third, and hundredth time you reach for the turn signal and accidentally turn on the windshield wipers, remember this comment.

That triggered a major flashback to my weeks-long tour of Australia and New Zealand some years back. I rented three cars on three different stops, and each time I changed cars the wiper and turn signal stalks were reversed. Turn signal stalk on the right in the first car, left in the second, and back to the right side in the third. I spent nearly the entire trip turning on the wipers at every roundabout.

Another memory from that trip is that the car I drove on the South Island of New Zealand had a sticker on the instrument panel near the speedometer in the shape of a leftward-pointing arrow with the words "KEEP LEFT" in all-caps and red type enclosed within the arrow.
posted by HillbillyInBC at 6:39 PM on August 29, 2018

I'm not sure how this applies to visitors, though.
It appears not to; I just presented my TX license for a manual rental.

I found my right hand banging against the door frequently when I went to shift, though, and discovered that the fine motor control that allows me to inerringly select 1st vs 3rd in the US to fail about 30% of the time doing the same task with my left hand in the UK. :)
The first, third, and hundredth time you reach for the turn signal and accidentally turn on the windshield wipers, remember this comment.
I found the controls in my rental Vauxhaul in June to be exactly the same, left to right, as in my American VW. The only difference was the actual position of the driver's seat.
posted by uberchet at 7:55 AM on August 30, 2018

I have driven in the UK or Ireland a couple of times, and like many above, I found that after an hour or two it began to feel mostly normal. In addition to the issues of looking in the other direction than you're used to, I found my biggest problem was remembering that most of the car was to my left. I scuffed a tire ($100 damage 20 or so years ago) because of this. Tire damage is the biggest issue for opposite side drivers.
posted by mr vino at 5:32 PM on August 30, 2018

I'm an American driving in the UK on vacation right now. I've driven here and in Ireland about a half dozen times. It takes me almost no time to get used to driving on the left and roundabouts because you're usually following traffic enough to go with the flow. It takes me a few days to adjust to the body of the car being on the left and the driver's seat being on the right; I take about five days to really get comfy with the driving, and I pretty much constantly need GPS and my husband co-piloting from the passenger seat. We just went to Oxford today, and that was the hardest / most confusing city driving I've encountered here (and even so, we got in and out pretty easily). Single track roads still terrify me, and when I'm tootling along at the speed limit on country roads I try to pull over in lay-bys to let people behind me go ahead if it seems like I'm annoying them.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 9:02 PM on August 30, 2018

We just went to Oxford today, and that was the hardest / most confusing city driving I've encountered here (and even so, we got in and out pretty easily)

Oxford has a park and ride. It is exactly the kind of city -- medieval layout, lots of one-ways -- for which park and ride makes sense.

Anyway: actual motorways (M-roads) differ from US interstates in that you can't assume that there'll be petrol and food or toilets at every exit. The gaps between junctions are Americanish, but the services are not. You will pay a premium for filling up at an actual service station but it's probably better than leaving at a random junction and hoping there'll be a petrol station nearby.
posted by holgate at 9:13 PM on August 30, 2018

Got / have access to an XBox One? Practice in the cockpit view of Forza Horizon 3, set in an RHD country (Australia). When I went to Hawaii my life was made much easier by years and years of Grand Theft Auto, and Test Drive: Unlimited even gave me some (only occasionally helpful) sense that I knew where I was going in terms of the highways and major country roads.
posted by MarchHare at 12:23 PM on August 31, 2018

Took me less than an hour when we visited Ireland. I slipped up occasionally in totally not-dangerous ways. No disasters.

The country roads in Ireland can be quite narrow and winding, and I imagine that the same might be said for England. Go slow, and avoid the temptation to drift into the center of the roadway when you think there's no one around. It makes things really hard for oncoming traffic around blind curves.

Definitely recommend the automatic transmission.

If car rental agencies there are anything like those in Ireland, I recommend that you take meticulous photographs and do a walkaround with the staff at the time of pickup and dropoff. Write every tiny little ding on the initial inspection form. When you return the car, do a final inspection with the staff, and have them and write on the form, 'NO NEW DAMAGES' and sign it. Keep copies of everything, even if it means snapping a pic of every page with your phone. Monitor your credit cards for at least 6 months afterward for unexpected rental charges. Really, it's a thing.
posted by aquamvidam at 7:58 AM on September 2, 2018 [1 favorite]

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