Driving in the UK
Posted by Ben C. Blackwell under International Life  Comments
See also my Driving in the UK pt 2 post.
I forgot to add this to my last post about travel in the UK. Driving here is not that difficult, although it tends to scare your passengers much more than it does you. In particular, my experience and that of several friends is that lots of Americans turn into back-seat-drivers when another American is driving over here. My experience is limited to southern Scotland, Northumbria, and County Durham, but here are a few points of interest we found:
Roadways: The main north-south motorway (“highway”) in the north east is the A1. Being from the States, I thought this road would be 4 lanes+ the whole way from London to Edinburgh. However, much (maybe even the majority) of the time it is just 2 lanes. That way you get to fight with all the semis that go at least 10 mph less than the car speed limit. You also go through towns and through round-a-bouts. It’s more like a US Hwy (e.g. Route 66) than an interstate. What this means is that it will take at least 20%-50% longer than it would in the US for the same distance. For example, it may look like it’d take 90-100 minutes to get from Edinburgh to Durham, but it is a full 3.5 hrs. Going south is not an issue because it is 4+ lanes all the way to London.
Speed Limits: They still measure things in miles, so speed limits are mph. On motorways the typical speed limit is 60 mph if it’s a single carriageway (“2 lanes”) and 70 mph if it’s a dual carriageway (“4 lanes”). In Scotland these are posted regularly, but in NE England we have never seen a speed limit sign on the A1 unless there is construction or you are in a city where the limit is lower. They don’t use cops to give tickets, instead they use speed cameras. On our first trip down from Scotland to Durham we got flashed by a camera in a rental car and never got anything, but I’m also pretty sure that I wasn’t going over the speed limit because at that time I thought it was 10 mph less than it is.
Parking: In Durham (and it seems most other places as well) parking is at a premium, and you will almost always have to pay. For parking meters you put in an amount of money (always have coins on hand), and it prints out a little ticket with a sticker that you place on your windscreen (“windshield”). Double yellow lines mean no parking. Zigzag lines mean no stopping or it’s 3 points on your license (I’ve had a cop tell me when I was dropping someone off once).
Driving License: I’ve heard that you can drive here up to a year without a local license. I’m assuming that really only applies when you have a car because the handful of times when I’ve hired (“rented”) a car, they just want a copy of any license and haven’t asked how long I’ve been here. The practical portion of the driving tests are supposed to be very difficult here with a large portion of people taking it more than once. Internationals from N. America often take driving lessons to learn all the things being tested.
Petrol: Diesel is generally more popular than in the states, but petrol (~gasoline) is the most predominant. It has been running in the 90p/litre range for quite a while, as prices don’t seem to move around as much as they do in the states. Petrol stations are not nearly as numerous (seriously maybe a quarter or less) as they are in the states, where they seem to be every couple of blocks or on every off-ramp. So they can be much more difficult to find if you really need it, so get it while you can if you are unsure about your options. One thing that some rental companies here (that is very different from the states) is charge you less for petrol than a market price, but they charge you for a full tank up front so you only get a deal if you return it near empty. This isn’t always the case so always ask up front.
The British here in the NE are definitely drivers, but their perception of a long trip is 1 hour by car vs say 3 or 4 hours for an American. For instance our NT Seminar has a annual interchange with Sheffield and we are going there this year. While only 2 hours or so by car and we only have 12 or so people going, John thought it would be easier to go by train and he mentioned that it would be “greener”, too. This is definitely a different mindset than someone in Texas.