Surviving driving – in London

Driving in London (and the wider UK): American expats, you will be changing your travel habits (except maybe you, New Yorkers). Forget the car. It may still be helpful for trips to the supermarket, or driving your kids down the road to a playdate (especially if it’s raining) – but unless you are staying in your immediate neighborhood, be prepared for hectic.

Rules of the road: Your US driving license (or licence, in its UK spelling) is valid in the UK for 12 months from your entry date. But does that qualify you for safe driving? It’s somewhat ironic that you need to take the UK driving test after having bungled your way through the busy London streets for a whole year – hopefully without doing any serious damage.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive driving guide, but I thought I’d summarise what I consider the top 5 differences to be aware of when braving London roads:

1) Drive on the left.

2) Mind the roundabout (aka traffic circle). Go counter-clockwise and yield to traffic already in the roundabout, which will be approaching from your right. There are one-lane mini-roundabouts and multi-lane scary-as-hell roundabouts. I could try to describe the rules, but it will make more sense if you look at the relevant sections here before you hit the road. Look especially closely at which lane to use on approaching a roundabout, when to change lanes, and signaling. (My husband did not do this. He managed to get into an accident his first time going around one of the larger roundabouts – not the right way to find out that you can’t be in the outer lane if you are taking the third exit…)

3) Be prepared for a close shave. Every day. Many London streets are incredibly narrow, with cars (legally) parked on both sides. It’s not helpful that most of your car will be to the left of you – not where you’ve been expecting it during your US driving life. Car, buses, vans, lorries can get incredibly close, but the Londoners will continue pushing through regardless. If you find a car coming at you in an absolutely impassable location – well, that’ll also happen quite a lot. Always look ahead for oncoming traffic, you may need to stop in a gap 100 yards ahead and wait for the other person pass. Or, you may need to stop across from a gap 100 yards ahead so the other person can pull in to let you pass. Or, you may need to back up 100 yards to a gap you can pull into, to let the other person pass.

4) Don’t take any lefts (or rights, for that matter) on red.

5) Take care of cyclists, especially on those narrow roads and going around multi-lane roundabouts.

The speed limits are 30 mph in towns, 60 mph on single-lane roads outside build-up areas, and 70 mph on highways.

Safe driving! Within the first 12 months, you’ll need to get yourself a UK license – I’ll post on how to go about that another time.

Navigate London in one of these? Don't forget the wood polish.

Navigate London in one of these? Don’t forget the wood polish.

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