Driving a car hire in the United Kingdom is a great way to see as much as possible. Trains run between the major cities but so much of the country’s charm is to be found hidden away from the main centres - quaint villages, stunning countryside, historic pubs, quiet rivers and even the odd castle.
The system of roads criss-crossing England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is well-developed and can get you wherever you need to go with reasonable efficiency and ease. First time visitors to the UK may feel a little led astray by popular culture when they see that it’s not all winding country lanes and faded signposts. These certainly exist and are a great part of the UK road trip experience- but you will also find yourself negotiating multi-lane dual carriageways, busy intersections and toll roads. Here are a few tips to getting around safely on the roads of the United Kingdom.
The most important thing to remember
Unlike much of the rest of the world, residents of the UK drive on the left hand side of the road. Obviously, if you are from a country which drives on the right, this is the number one thing you will need to get used to. Pay very close attention and remind yourself at each turn to stay left. Even after you think you have mastered the art, stay vigilant - it’s when your guard is down that you can drift in your UK car hire onto the wrong side of the road.
Driving on the left also means that the driver sits on the right hand side of the car. That one’s obvious- but there are more ramifications which complicate things even further, as all who have switched sides have found. The indicators (signals) are usually on the right, so be prepared to spend the first few days turning on the windscreen wipers every time you take a corner. If you are driving a car with a manual transmission, the gear stick will be on the left. Overtaking is done on the right, and you will usually give way to your right. Roundabouts (traffic circles) flow clockwise.
Rules of the Road
The Highway Code is the name given to the set of rules and guidelines for drivers in the UK. There is a Great Britain version, available in English and Welsh, which applies to England, Wales and Scotland, and a Northern Ireland version available in English and Irish.
Speed, alcohol and other restrictions
Distances in the UK are measured in miles, and speed limits are posted in miles per hour (mph). The default limits are 70 mph on motorways and dual carriageways, 60 mph on single carriageways and 30 mph in built-up areas.
There is a breath alcohol limit of 35 microgrammes per 100 millilitres of breath and a blood alcohol limit of 80 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood enforced for all drivers in the UK. It is recommended that you avoid drinking completely when you are planning to drive your UK Airport car hire.
The driver and all passengers must wear a seatbelt whenever the vehicle is moving, and children must be in an appropriate and approved child restraint. It is the responsibility of the driver to make sure that all passengers under the age of 14 are wearing theirs.
Use of mobile devices while driving is strictly prohibited.
Foreign drivers in the UK over the age of 17 may drive for up to 12 months if they have a valid driving permit from their country of residence. Some licences, particularly those from EU countries, can be used for up to three years. An international driver’s permit is recommended for those with licences in languages other than English.
Sharing the road
Indicators (signals) allow you to indicate your intention to other road users. Use them to indicate direction for a few seconds, and turn them off after you have performed the turn or lane change.
Lanes are divided by a variety of markings. A broken white line marks the centre of the road in a place where you may overtake where it is safe. If there are two white lines in the centre of the road and the one on the side closest to you is broken, you may overtake in you UK Airport car rental where it is safe and only if you can complete the maneuver before reaching a solid white line on your side of the road. When the line nearest to you is solid, you must not overtake and can only cross it to enter a side road.
Lane dividers are used on multi-lane roads to separate lanes heading in the same direction, and they are marked with short broken white lines. Keep between them except to change lanes when it is safe to do so.
Overtaking should be done to the right of the vehicle being passed. Check that there is enough clear road ahead, use your car hire mirrors to check for other vehicles, indicate right and overtake as quickly as possible. Indicate left and move back into your lane as soon as you can without cutting off the vehicle you are overtaking.
Stop and Give Way signs operate as they do all around the globe. You are obligated to stop at a Stop sign, behind the solid white line, and wait until it is safe before moving off. A Give Way sign means that you do not have to stop but must give way to any other traffic.
Junctions come in a variety of forms. Here are the main ones:
● Box junctions are unique to the UK. They are indicated by a square of criss-cross yellow lines. You must not enter the box until your exit road or lane is clear. However, if you want to turn right and are blocked only by oncoming traffic you may enter the box and wait.
● Traffic lights are probably very familiar to all drivers. Red means stop, green means go, and amber means stop if it is safe to do so. Arrows can work independently from the main, round lights to indicate when you may or may not turn. You may not turn left on a red light whether it is clear or not.
● Right turns mean turning across oncoming traffic. Indicate right, check your mirrors and the oncoming lane for vehicles, and turn your UK rental vehicle. If you have to stop and wait, position the vehicle as close to the middle of the road as possible, or in the marked turning bay if there is one.
● Roundabouts are very simple to use, but can be confusing to those who are not used to them - or those who are adjusting to driving on the other side of the road. When approaching a roundabout, use any markings on the road to pick your lane. Indicate your final direction and veer left into the roundabout when it is clear, giving way to any traffic coming from your right. Make sure your lane allows you to exit in your chosen direction, and indicate left just before you exit. The good thing about a roundabout is that if you get flustered, you can drive around it a few times while gathering your wits.
These include ambulances, fire engines, police cars and any other official vehicle using flashing blue, red or green lights or flashing headlights. They have the right of way and you should always pull over to allow them to pass if it is safe. Sirens will often be used to warn you of their presence. You should also make way for Highways Agency Traffic Officer and Incident Support vehicles which have flashing amber lights while driving your UK Airport car hire.
As in any nation around the world, road signs are very important to drivers as they give orders, instructions, information and warnings.
Red, white and black on a road sign usually indicates an order, a prohibition or a warning.
Speed limit signs are white circles in a red ring with black figures, and prohibitive signs combine the red-ringed white circle with pictographs to indicate things such as “no cycling,” “no overtaking,” no left turn,” “no vehicles over height or width shown,” and more.
Stop signs are the universal red hexagon with white “STOP,” and give way signs are the usual inverted white triangle with red border and black “GIVE WAY.”
Warning signs are also white inverted triangles with red borders. These use symbols and pictographs to warn motorists of hazards which might include road narrowing, junctions, traffic lights, level crossings, sharp bends, low-flying aircraft, elderly pedestrians, wild animals or ice/snow.
Where possible, used marked parking bays off-street or on the roadside for your UK car hire. If these are not available, you may park at the edge of the road as long as you stop as close to the edge as possible,, apply the handbrake and take care when opening the doors on the right hand side of the vehicle. You can not park on the hard shoulder of a motorway, on a pedestrian crossing, on a clearway, in a taxi bay, on a road with a centreline of double white lines, in a tram, bus or cycle lane during its hours of operation, within ten metres of a junction, where there is a white zigzag line or on double yellow lines.
Restrictions can be in place in some areas, and these are usually indicated by a single yellow line or a broken yellow line in conjunction with signs to specify the rules. These usually indicate that no parking is allowed during peak daytime hours, but it is important to always check the signs. Signs will include a blue circle with red slash and the times when parking is not allowed.
Some parking places in residential areas are for resident permit holders only. The signs for these state “Resident permit holders only,” with a white “P” on a blue background and times when the restriction applies for your car rental.
If you can’t find somewhere to leave your UK car hire for free, you will have to cough up.
Councils operate parking meters and some carparks (parking lots). These often operate on a system of controlled hours and uncontrolled hours, so you will be able to park for free outside peak times. It’s a good idea to carry change for parking meters.
Otherwise, most paid parking will be in private carparks. These operate by their own rules and set their own prices, so it is a mixed bag. Expect to pay steeply for parking in bigger cities or popular tourist sites.
Getting from point A to point B in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is possible, if not always simple, thanks to a network of motorways, A-roads, B-roads and local routes.
Motorways are controlled-access dual-carriageway highways marked with an “M” prefix, and were added to the roading system after the numbering system of A-roads had already been established, so they were numbered by a different but similar system. Motorways M1-M6 are found in England and Wales, and in Scotland the M7, M8 and M9 are used. Linking motorways are numbered with additional digits after the number indicating the parent motorway- for example, the M18 is an offshoot of the M1, and the M80 is an offshoot of the M8. There are also sections of some A-roads which have been upgraded to motorways, and these are marked with an (M) after their name, for example A1(M).
Northern Ireland has its own motorway numbering system which includes an M1, M2, M3, M5 and several offshoots.
A roads are the primary non-motorway routes, and their numbering is based on a radial pattern of zones which is centred on London and Edinburgh. In most cases, the single-digit roads, i.e A8-A9, define the boundaries of the zones. As with the motorways, they have offshoots for your UK Airport car hireand branches which are named with two digits of which the first refers to the zone in which they began, assuming an anticlockwise direction. For example, the A38 starts in zone 3 but also passes through zones 4,5 and 6.
Northern Ireland has its own system of A roads with designations starting with A1-8.
B roads are local routes, important enough to have numbers but ranging in size from dual carriageways to single-lane roads with passing places. They follow the same numbering scheme as A roads but usually have three or four digits.
Fortunately for your travel budget, there are not many tolls in the UK. The biggest one is the M6 Toll, also called the Birmingham North Relief Road. It connects with the M6 at Coleshill and again near Wolverhampton to provide a six-lane alternative route to the congested section of the M6 which runs near Birmingham. Costs vary but for a car during the daytime Monday to Friday, a trip costs five and a half pounds. Residents often use a toll tag, but you can also pay with coins or credit/debit cards at an automated station or with cash at a staffed tollbooth. This toll road is completely optional as it runs more or less parallel with the main M6.
In London and Durham, there are congestion charges payable which are essentially tolls. In Durham, the charge applies to all vehicle movements in Saddler Street in the city centre, and in London it applies to all vehicle movements in the Congestion Charge Zone which comprises much of the city centre. Both use automatic number plate recognition to charge drivers. The Durham charge can be paid at the Parking Shop in Finchale Road or over the phone at 0191 384 6633, and the London charge can be paid online at Transport for London.
There are a few bridges and tunnels in various parts of the UK with tolls which you'll need to pay while driving your UK car hire. These include, among others:
● Dartford Crossing on the eastern edge of Greater London
● Humber Bridge near Kingston upon Hull
● Mersey Tunnels in Liverpool
● Severn Bridge which connects England to south east Wales near Bristol
● Tyne Tunnel under the River Tyne between Newcastle and South Shields
● You can pay in cash at all of the tolled bridges and tunnels. Some will not accept cards.
Miscellaneous tips for UK driving
A relatively small country, The United Kingdom can’t spread out as much as many of its former colonies. This means that many roads are narrow, some with only one lane and often partially obstructed by parked cars or roadworks. This can necessitate good communication with fellow drivers - hand signals and headlight flashes are useful in indicating that you are giving way, to say thank you or in warning. Confusingly, there are no agreed-upon signals so you must use your judgement to read a situation. Co-operation is key!
The majority of cars in the UK have a manual transmission or stick shift. The steering wheel being on the right means that the gearstick is operated by the left hand. This can cause some confusion for those attempting to drive on the left in a UK car rental for the first time, and if you are not keen on the idea you should specify that you want an automatic transmission in your rental car when booking.
Roundabouts (or traffic circles) are easy enough to use, but roads in the UK also feature double roundabouts. The same rules apply for these, and each one should be treated as an individual intersection, which may mean stopping on the first roundabout while waiting until it is safe to enter the second.
Parked cars on narrow lanes
In cities, villages and towns, you may find that parked cars narrow the road so that only one vehicle can fit through. If the cars are parked on your side of the road, you will need to decide whether there is space for vehicles to pass both ways and if not, give way in your car hire. This is where flashing lights and good communication with other drivers often comes into play.
There is really no difference between driving in Scotland or Wales and driving in England. Northern Ireland is pretty similar too, although it requires a ferry crossing. Borders are marked but of course not controlled. There seems to be an aversion to naming the different countries within the UK - so if you are heading towards Scotland from England, you won’t see many signs saying “Scotland” until you are right on the border but rather “The North” or occasionally the names of major Scottish cities.
Motorway Service Areas
Motorway services are rest areas which offer petrol stations to fill up your UK car rental, mini supermarkets, fast food and WiFi to travelers on the motorways. We recommend getting off the main roads and visiting villages and local eateries where possible, but the services are very helpful when you are in a hurry. They are well signposted all along the motorways and most are run by three different companies - Welcome Break, Roadchef and Moto. You might also spot stations by Esso, Westmorland/Tebay and Extra.
Tourist Information Centres
All throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland you will be helped along your journey by Tourist Information Centres. These are marked with signs featuring a lowercase “i” of varying colours and are regulated to national standards to provide quality information and booking services. Keep a look out for these and gain invaluable local knowledge! You can find lists of all TICs on the Visit Britain website.
There is also a combined site called Visit Britain.
Smartphones are fast becoming ubiquitous, and apps can make your self-guided travel smoother. Here are some which are helpful for travel around the UK:
● Google Maps (Android and iOS) is the next best thing to a GPS unit.
● Airbnb is a great way to find cheap accommodation globally. The app is available to download on iOS and Android.
● WiFi Finders on iOS and Android are very handy and help you to power the other travel apps.
● Hailo is a must-have for nights out in London, making it easy to hail a cab. You can get it on iOS and Android.
● The Met Office has an app on iOS and Android which will give you updates on local weather.
● The global food-finding app, Foodspotting, is just as great in the UK. It’s available on all platforms.
● The Airport Rentals App, available on iOS and Android, is the best way to book a rental car from a range of suppliers and in a huge array of locations across the UK.
A car hire road trip in the UK is always an unforgettable experience. Keep these tips in mind and enjoy a safe journey!
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