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Driving in the UK vs USA

There are some incredible drives in the both the UK (think Scottish highlands) and the US (Pacific Coast Highway), but certain driving practices are very different. Here are some of the major differences – both obvious and less well known.

Right and Left

Let’s start with the obvious. You will be both on the ‘wrong’ side of the car and ‘wrong’ side of the road when going from the US to UK or vice versa.

You adjust to this pretty quickly, and on busy roads it is very obvious. However, if you are on quieter roads without other cars as a reference it can happen that you end up on the wrong side and face to face with another vehicle.

If it’s something that is an issue for you maybe stick a post-it or something to the dashboard as a reminder. 

I may possibly have accidentally tried to get into a parking lot via the exit without thinking and then been very confused why the barrier wasn’t lifting… It took me far longer than it should have to realise what had gone wrong but thankfully there weren’t many people around to notice and laugh at me as I reversed back out.

Open straight road on a sunny day with mountains in the background

Manual vs Automatic

Most cars in the UK are manual (or stick shift as they are often called in the US), and if you are renting a car in the UK it will likely be a manual car. Automatics are becoming more common as we move towards hybrid and electric cars which are all automatic but these are still the minority. 

In the USA the vast majority of cars are automatic and a rental car almost certainly will be unless you are renting a special or vintage car for your trip. 

The Brits definitely have an advantage here. It is far easier to go from driving a manual to an automatic than the other way around. Even if you do drive a manual in the US you will also be changing gear with the ‘wrong’ hand which is a big adjustment.

Be aware of what type of car you will be driving and make sure you have an understanding of how to use the clutch pedal and properly switch gears if you aren’t used to driving a manual car. 

Car and Road Size

Roads, parking spaces and vehicles are generally bigger in the US.

Again, an advantage for the Brits. You can get a much bigger car than you are used to in the UK and have no more trouble driving it because the roads are bigger. I drive a fairly small hatchback in the UK but rented a much bigger SUV when on my US road trip and had no issue.

If you are coming to the UK you might want to skip the massive SUV in favour of something smaller. Most oUK cities are much, much older than yours and so weren’t designed with cars in mind. We have a lot of one way roads and roads with passing points that you have to pull into to allow the cars in the other direction to pass as the road isn’t wide enough for both.

Driving Distances

One of the more useful sayings I have found about the difference between the US and the UK is this. Americans think 100 years is a long time, and the English think 100 miles is a long way.

I can’t find the original quotation for this and it has been paraphrased many times but the sentiment is still true. If you are travelling to the US don’t underestimate how long it takes to get around, simply because of the distance. A

n American might not think much of a 6+ hour drive, but that is a pretty significant trip in the UK. Cities are much further apart and travel between them might be a lot longer than you think. 

Roundabouts and Stop Signs

Roundabout in the middle of houses and parks.

Roundabouts are everywhere in the UK. They do exist in the US but are much less common. Across 5 months of driving and 22,000 miles on a 48 state road trip in the US I probably only came across 10 roundabouts.

There are definitely times in the UK when I will drive around more roundabouts in one day than I did in my whole time in the US. Give way to traffic coming from the right, use your indicators, and make sure you drive clockwise around the roundabout. Watch a couple of YouTube videos before you go to get an idea of how it works.

In the USA a lot of junctions where a roundabout would be used in the UK have stop signs. Unsurprisingly you MUST stop at a stop sign, even if there aren’t any other cars or people around. If you don’t stop and you are caught by police you will get a ticket. If other cars are also at a stop sign then you cross the junction in the order that you arrived at the junction. 

Turning Right on a Red Light

Unless there are signs saying otherwise, in most places in the US you can turn right on a red light if the road is clear of vehicles and pedestrians.

The equivalent in the UK would be turning left on a red but this is an absolute no-no. Red means red. It felt really weird and a bit naughty at first to turn right on red in the US, but drivers behind you may start beeping at you if you don’t.

Speed

Obviously, I am an angel and have never sped in my life…

However, in the interest of providing useful advice, I’ll cover some points on a topic that has obviously never been an issue for my unfailingly law-abiding self.

I found myself writing a complete essay on speeds in each country and I’ve tried to distil it down, but if nothing else just keep an eye out for signs and don’t rely only on your sat nav to tell you the correct speed. They aren’t always up to date. 

Speedometer car display

Driving speed is measured in mph in both countries. In the US the maximum speed limit varies both between type of road and also from state to state. In some states it is 65, in others 70 and even 80 in a few places. Speed limits are posted reasonably often in the US so watch out for the signs.

Being a much smaller country, the UK has national speed limits for the types of road you will be driving on.

Motorway – 70mph. Dual carriageway – 70mph. Single carriageway – 60mph. Built up areas – 30mph. 

HOWEVER, you are much more likely to see temporary speed limits in the UK, and many residential areas are changing limits down to 20mph with cameras around to catch you.

Speed Cameras

In the UK you are more likely to be caught be a static speed camera, although police will also set up in temporary spots to check for speeding. Speed cameras are generally bright yellow and often easy to spot, but they are sometimes partially concealed behind trees and if you spot them too late it can be dangerous to brake to get under the limit in time. Obviously, I do not recommend speeding. 

In the USA speed cameras are uncommon and if you are caught it is likely to be by a police officer. I have seen them parked up by state lines to catch people who haven’t noticed they have crossed into a state with a lower limit, but they could be anywhere. 

I would also add that in several places in the UK there are sections of ‘average speed limits’ where you have to watch your speed over a long distance to make sure you are generally keeping to the speed limit rather than speeding and just slowing down near the cameras. 

Again, being an angel I obviously have no personal experience with this…

Overtaking

UK drivers will get very annoyed if you stick in the middle or right lane on a UK motorway if you aren’t overtaking. You should always be in the left most lane unless you are overtaking or it is an exit lane.

Undertaking is much more frowned upon in the UK than in the US, so don’t put other drivers in a position where they have to trail for miles behind you or undertake you if you aren’t at the speed limit in the correct lane.

In the US you should be in the far right lane unless you are overtaking or it is an exit lane, however undertaking is much more common. Drivers could be going around you on either side, even though they shouldn’t.

Whichever country you are in, you should always be conscious of the vehicles in the lanes around you, but this is especially important in the US as someone might well be coming up behind you on the wrong side. 

Fuel

Petrol in the UK, or gas in the US. It’s the same thing and is the more common fuel type than diesel. By the way – gas is short for gasoline, not an error regarding the physical state of the fuel!

Fuel costs vary wildly between states in the US as a result of different taxes and distances from refineries. You might pay almost three times the price in California as you would in Texas. Still, whatever state you are in it will generally be cheaper than in the UK. 

You buy fuel by the litre in the UK and by the gallon in the US so between that any the currency difference it requires a bit of effort to actually work out the difference, but by and large the UK is more expensive. 

Also, in certain parts of the US, you might find yourself driving a very long distance without seeing anywhere to get fuel. When driving through isolated areas make sure you keep an eye on your fuel and fill up where you can. 

Exits and Junctions

In the UK, motorway exits are numbered in order without any regards to distance. So, junction 1 is followed by junction 2 whether there is 1 mile or 30 miles between the two exits.

In the US, exits are marked by their distance from the start of that road, so after passing exit 3, the next exit might be number 15, 12 miles down the road. (If you are going from the ‘end’ of the road towards the start those numbers will obviously be counting down rather than up). 

On major roads in the UK, the junctions are often further apart than an equivalent road in the US. If you are driving near a city in America you might find 3 exits within a 1 mile stretch of road and it can be much harder to get across to the exit lane than on a UK motorway. Be conscious of the distance to your next exit and leave enough time to get to the correct lane.

On the plus side – if you miss your exit, the next one will generally be very close by to correct your route. On a UK motorway if you miss your exit it might take a while to get to the next one. 

Taking a Break

In the US ‘rest stops’ with just a place to park and toilets are few and far between and can often be closed or only open to trucks. If you are in the middle of nowhere it might be 100 miles before the next rest stop, unlike the UK where services are fairly frequent on motorways.

On the bright side ‘gas stations’ are often more substantial than the UK equivalent. Many of the big US chains have clean toilets, reasonable and cheap coffee and even fresh food. Loves and Buc-ee’s are good bets if you come across them. 

In the UK, a standard petrol station will be much smaller and I would be hesitant to buy whatever sandwiches they might offer, but motorway services are places where you can get fuel, use toilets, take a break and find coffee and food. 

Emergency Vehicles

This will be on signs regularly, but if you are approaching an emergency vehicle on the side of a major road in the US, you must move over to the next lane to give them ample space. If you are unable to move over due to traffic, you must significantly reduce your speed. 

The exact rules vary from state to state and may or may not include non-emergency vehicles with their hazard lights flashing. Make a mental note of the rule for the state you are in. 

Pedestrians at traffic lights

In the UK, if it is green for cars it will be red for pedestrians to cross any part of the road that cars might enter. 

In the US, if it is green for you and you are turning, the pedestrians will often also have a green light to cross the road you are about to turn into. The pedestrian has the right of way and you must let them cross first. Don’t beep at them – that is their allotted time to cross. 

Final Thoughts

It sounds like a lot, but you do get used to the differences fairly quickly, and as long as you are using common sense and observing what other drivers are doing you should be just fine.

And trust me from experience – the Scottish highlands, Lake District, Pacific Coast Highway, Redwood National Park and the Florida Keys are all drives worth doing, along with many many others, even if the different rules seem a bit overwhelming at first.

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