Six driving differences between the US and UK

Woman driving in the sunshine

America and the United Kingdom are two countries divided by a common language, as the saying goes – and by completely opposite methods of driving.

By Remy Maisel

As an American expat who’s lived in London for five years, I can confidently say that life in the US and the UK is pretty similar. Baseball, cricket, it’s all nonsense to me.

But when it comes to driving, there are a few notable differences (apart from the whole opposite side of the road thing) it’s worth getting your head around, especially if you’re considering a road trip across the pond. 

1. Country roads

In the UK, country roads only have enough space for one car, yet intended to accommodate two, but also lined with hedges that are six-feet tall and which obscure all vision in any direction. Also, it’s pitch black at night and there are probably sheep. This explains the number of questions about sheep in the theory test, which I did think was odd at the time. 

They may be unpaved, unnamed, unmarked, and impassable at some point, particularly if it has rained. Your satnav won't help you. You won’t be able to call for help because you won't have mobile reception.

If you encounter another car, you may have to reverse along the road (it’s probably a winding road) for god knows how long, until there’s space to pull over and let the other car pass. There’s no real system for who has to reverse. It’s pure anarchy. 

Rural roads in the US aren’t quite as claustrophobic. I mean, this is what they call ‘America’s loneliest road’.

2. Paying for fuel

I searched my first fuel pump for a credit card reader for ages before doing a furtive Google search on my phone. It turns out there’s a bit more of an honour system here – you pump first, and pay inside later. 

In the US, you absolutely must pay before you pump any fuel. I never quite cracked the code of paying with cash, because how do you know how much it’ll cost to fill up? But paying first with credit makes sense. I wondered how many people drive off in the UK without paying (apparently 25,000 in 2015), but of course, there’s CCTV everywhere in the UK. 

3. Manual vs automatic

Americans don’t really appreciate manual – or ‘stick shift’ – cars like the Brits. If you’re renting a car, you’ll have a slightly harder time and pay a bit of a premium to get an automatic – but it’s totally possible. I haven’t learned to drive manuals in the five years I’ve lived here, and I never will. I have an automatic-only UK driver’s licence, so I’m off the hook.

I’ve bought two relatively inexpensive used cars in the UK, and both have naturally been automatics. I thought it would really limit my options, but it hasn’t been a huge problem. However, all my friends who own cars have manuals, so if we go on trips together, I can’t drive their cars. 

4. DMV vs DVLA

Going to the tenth circle of hell known as the Department of Motor Vehicles is a time-honoured tradition for Americans, but most of the time Brits can avoid queuing for an unknown number of hours in an inconvenient and/or bad part of town with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. 

In the UK, number plates (licence plates) stay with the car, so you don’t have to transfer them, saving a visit. You can also apply for your driving licence and change your address online. I’ve moved around London a lot, and it’s been easy and quick to drop my licence in the post and get a new one back with my updated details promptly.

The only time I had to go anywhere was of course to take my driving theory and practical tests, but I easily booked those appointments online and there was no wait. 

5. Roundabouts vs stop signs

I’ve seen one stop sign in the UK in five years, in a random village around Crewe. It caught me so off guard I almost didn’t stop. 

Mostly, the US has four-way stop signs instead of mini-roundabouts. In theory, they work the same way – you just yield to the right – but in actuality, whoever has the biggest car (or cojones) goes first. 

Roundabouts do actually work once you get the hang of them and if you don’t feel shame going around more than once when you miss your exit. The only thing I did wrong on my practical test was indicate (signal) incorrectly in a roundabout, but they didn’t say how exactly, so I guess I’ll never know how to do that. 

Just avoid Swindon at all costs. 

6. Speed cameras

They may or may not work, but they cover every square mile of the United Kingdom. You’re more likely to get a letter in the post a couple of weeks after you commit an infraction than get pulled over by the police (so I hear).

In the States, locals know where there are hideaways for State Troopers to lurk with radar guns and speed accordingly (so I hear).

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