Tips for Driving in Scotland and England
Lucky for us, our host in England was willing to let us borrow her car for the duration of our stay. Having a car would mean we could quickly get outside of the small town we were staying in and explore the area.
Driving in England In the interest of being culturally respectful, I avoid calling it the “wrong” side of the road. One English person we chatted with about driving joked playfully that it isn’t the “wrong” side, even though I had been sure to say “other”. This gave me the impression that he had expected me to say “wrong”. In any case, it’s a harmless slip that nobody takes too seriously, but I think it important to acknowledge nonetheless.
Driving (or riding in this case) on the left began as the norm in the days when it was important to have your dominant, and thus sword wielding, hand closest to an approaching enemy. As most people were right-handed, this meant being on the left. Things changed for continental Europe when a left-handed Napoleon required his armies to march on the right in order to satisfy his own need for dominance (and also to satisfy his Napoleon complex of course). We might all be turning left on red and waiting for oncoming traffic to turn right had Napoleon been born a righty.
The Car With a few exceptions (notably the turn signal), the placement of almost every function in the car was the exact opposite of what I was used to. Even the volume knob on the radio was on the right instead of the left. Rather than make it more difficult, having everything opposite actually made it easier for my brain to grasp the switch more quickly. Just as in the U.S. and other parts of Europe, I was sitting on the side of the car closest to oncoming traffic. What was most difficult about the seating position was my spatial awareness of the opposite side of the car. It was probably 2 weeks into driving before I became comfortable with how close oncoming objects were to the left side.
Roundabouts Roundabouts are uncommon in the States, but they’re everywhere in the UK. They can be very confusing until you remember one simple idea: just look to your right (left in the States) and if nobody is coming it’s your turn. Once I got used to this idea I actually found roundabouts to be very efficient. Instead of a 4 way stop, everyone can more or less keep moving (except in larger roundabouts where traffic lights are necessary).
A few other simple rules were necessary to be comfortable with double lane roundabouts. For simplicity I’ll use a roundabout with 4 exits, much like a 4 way stop in the US. If you’re turning left or going straight through, position yourself in the left lane when entering the roundabout. If you’re turning right, position yourself in the right lane and turn your right blinker on. When you’re ready to exit the roundabout, turn the left blinker on and make your move. If you find yourself in the right lane when entering the roundabout and plan to go straight, just be sure to exit in the righthand lane. More information on roundabouts can be found here (beware sound).
Highways & Why the U.S. Interstate Highway System is Awesome I gained a new respect for the US interstate system while driving in the UK. Wide, multi-lane highways with long on and off ramps are few and far between in the UK, making travel between destinations much slower. If the narrow lanes and single-lane highways aren’t enough, they have a nasty penchant for throwing a roundabout in the middle of a perfectly good stretch of highway, making travel even slower. To be fair, the train system is so much more developed, and the country so much smaller, long drives aren’t as necessary in the UK.
Manual (Stick Shift) For our driving trip around Scotland we rented a car and, given that an automatic costs almost three times as much to rent, we opted for the manual. I grew up driving a “stick shift” so I wasn’t too concerned with adding it to the mix. But what really threw me off was that the gearbox was just as it is in the US. So, ignoring reverse, first gear was the furthest away. I found this very odd but realized it may have something to do with the way cars are manufactured that I’m unaware of.
Small, Windy, and Windy Roads Driving in Scotland was an adventure in itself. The roads, especially in the west, were small and windy. Add the wind, rain, oncoming lorries (semi trucks), unbelievable scenery, frequent turnoffs to take photos, and sleeping baby in the back into the mix and we had ourselves 5 days of knuckle biting fun. The scenery was truly gorgeous though and after a few days caused me to quip, “I wish it would stop being so beautiful so I could stop stopping to take pictures.”
I’ll admit to being more than a little nervous to get behind the wheel of a car on the right side and to drive the car on the left side of the road, especially given the car was borrowed from a friend. I thought for sure that reversing 18+ years of ingrained muscle memory would be tricky. And though it did require significant concentration, it wasn’t as difficult as I expected.
Traveling to the UK? Don't forget to pin this for reference. Cheers!