Comparative Driving: UK vs. USA

After several months in the U.S., we are again re-adjusting to British driving habits. The most famous of course is that Britain is one of those countries that drives on the left. Yes, it can initially be a bit disorienting if you’ve spent your whole life driving on the right; but it is not hard to master once you get used to it. Everyone in the U.K. manages fine.

When I was first learning over 15 years ago, I found the foremost rule to remember is this: “Keep the center line to your right side. Always to your RIGHT!” Drilling that into your head helps it become second nature quickly. (It had better.) Sitting on the right side of the car behind a right hand steering wheel is also an invaluable and subconscious (and logical) assistance:

The right-hand drive steering wheel on our Belgium-assembled, British Volvo. [Photo by me, 2014]
The right-hand drive steering wheel on our Belgium-assembled, British Volvo. [Photo by me, 2014.]
Beyond that, one encounters other differing rules of the road and cultural driving behaviors. Americans newly behind the wheel in the U.K. must bear them in mind, for falling afoul of any may mean meeting up with one of Britain’s legion of legendary, unarmed police officers, finding a whopping ticket (or even more than one, or even a court appearance demand) waiting when the rental car is returned …. or, worse of all, requiring an NHS ambulance (which non-EU U.S. tourists are billed for; they don’t qualify for “free” UK medical treatment). They may seem weird and alien compared to what Americans are accustomed to doing on roads at home:

1) In the U.K.: You should make space – move over, if possible – and permit vehicles joining the motorway, or dual carriageway, to do so smoothly.

In the U.S.A.: “That moron thinks he’s merging into my lane? I’ll hold my ground and make him get behind me. Dammit, I was here first!”

2) In the U.K.: No left turn on a red light.

In the U.S.A.: “The light’s turned red? Oh, no! I know, I’ll speed up and turn right as quickly as I can before the oncoming traffic comes through the intersection! Wait, that guy in that overpriced SUV actually stopped at the light before turning? Imbecile. That’s a funny looking license plate too. I’ll honk him. He must be Canadian.”

3) In the U.K.: At a roundabout, STOP if necessary. Give way to vehicles already in the roundabout. When it’s clear, enter the roundabout and indicate your chosen exit. After exiting, continue your journey.

In the U.S.A.: “Yielding and driving partly in a circle to be able to go straight ahead or make a turn? What a dumb idea. It sounds French. If I have to stop anywhere, I expect to see a red light, or a STOP sign.”

4) In the U.K.: STOP signs are usually placed at junctions where a roundabout will not fit, and traffic is heavy enough to be regulated. When you reach a STOP sign…. STOP! After doing so, look carefully, and when clear proceed.

In the U.S.A.: “Not another blessed STOP sign? Geez. It’s government conspiring with the brake makers to get regular business. Or it’s looking to make it easy for some cop to hand out a ticket when he sees me roll through one of the 25 STOP signs in the last 6 blocks!”

5) In the U.K.: Red lights are positioned generally where a STOP sign won’t do, a roundabout won’t fit or work, or traffic is so heavy that a free-flowing roundabout is impractical. On green, you may move forward into and through the intersection.

In the U.S.A.: “Why is there a red light here? There’s no one else around? Are those crickets I hear outside the car? This waiting is soooo boring. I think I’ll eat my sandwich.”

6) In the U.K.: Using a handheld mobile phone is strictly prohibited.

In the U.S.A.: “I know using the phone’s illegal, but I have to text my girlfriend. Oops, a cop’s behind me! Hope he didn’t see me using my phone? I’ll drop it on the floor. No, no, I meant to drop the phone, not the coffee!”

7) In the U.K.: On motorways and dual carriageways, don’t undertake. Pass on the (outside) right only. Respect lane discipline for the safety of all road users.

In the U.S.A.: “I weave in and out and pass slow guys wherever they are, from any side. It’s every man and woman for himself out there. That’s what America was built upon: freedom! Lane discipline is for Europeans. Just like socialized medicine.”

8) In the U.K.: A sign announcing “Average Speed Cameras” means number plate recognition technology is calculating your average speed. They are seen most commonly in roadworks, but are being used on other stretches of road increasingly. If you are detected exceeding the speed limit, you will receive a ticket in the post.

In the U.S.A.: “Good thing we don’t have those liberty-violating speed cameras in the U.S. If I see 55 MPH in a construction zone, I do 65. The workers? Look, if they can’t handle the excitement of working with cars flying by, this is America: they are free to get another job.”

9) In the U.K.: Yellow school buses are a rarity. Be extra-vigilant near schools in early mornings and mid-late afternoons. Most children – usually wearing school uniforms – walk to school, cycle, use public transport, or parents/ caregivers drop off/ collect them. (It’s called the “school run.”)

In the U.S.A. [when it is MY child]: “I drive our darling Dylan to the bus stop every morning. He waits in my car until the bus appears – because it’s cold outside and bad people are hiding behind bushes. When the bus stops fifteen feet away, all traffic must halt for miles in every direction as they wait for my angel finally to board. He will whenever the mood hits him because he’s raised not to feel crushed by authority. Or Republicans. Yeh, he’s 16 and 6 ft tall. But he’s our baby; just like he’ll still be when he’s on our health insurance at age 26. Those cars waiting will just have to wait. Tough.”

In the U.S.A. [when I am driving, and it is NOT my kid!]: “For God’s sake, teach Dylan how to walk faster! And to dress. You let him leave the house looking like that? Come on, you spoiled, idiot kid! Quit texting and get to the bus! I have to get to work to pay the obscene school taxes that help pay for that school bus!”

10) In the U.K.: If you drive into central London, understand it has a “congestion charge.” When you enter the “congestion” zone, your number plate is identified by number plate recognition technology. Cost and payment details are available at the Transport for London web site.

In the U.S.A.: “I’ll drive wherever I want for free because that’s what driving’s supposed to be. It’s on Henry Ford’s tombstone, isn’t it? Of course it’s not free on the New York State Thruway and on all those bridges and in tunnels in New York City. But New York is run by communists, so what else would you expect?”

Yep, we all increasingly imagine we live in “one world.” Yet we most definitely do not. We simply can’t ever escape certain, urr, national differences. 😉