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Driving in the UK ?

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Jan-Peter van Tijk

Living in Great Britain, from Netherlands

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Living in Great Britain, from Ghana

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The UK at a Glance

Driving in the UK

Driving in the UK is about more than using the left side of the road – though this may indeed be unusual for many expats. Travelling by car lets you explore the countryside at your leisure, but it also means facing strict speeding laws and bureaucracy. Our guide on driving in the UK can help!

Coming from another country and driving in the UK can require some readjustment: The United Kingdom is one of 76 countries in the world which require driving on the left-hand side of the road. Although it encompasses Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England, which are all governed differently, traffic rules are mostly the same. Even though it is not imperative to do so, most people living in the UK do own a car. Driving in the UK is a more convenient form of transport, especially in rural areas, where public transportation may be limited to one bus that comes rather infrequently.

UK’s Road Infrastructure

There are over 394,000 kilometers of paved roadways for driving in the UK, not too shabby a number for an island kingdom of its size! Once using the left-hand side of the road and having the steering wheel on the right has been mastered, driving in the UK can be great fun.

There are three categories of roads in the United Kingdom: In Great Britain (i.e. England, Scotland, and Wales), there are ‘A’ and ‘B-roads’, as well as motorways, often simply called ‘M-roads’. A-roads are the federal main routes between cities. A1 to A6, for instance, rotate clockwise around London, while A7 through A9 rotate clockwise from Edinburgh to other Scottish cities. B-roads are smaller local routes and often have less traffic. Motorways or M-roads are the large freeways for fast driving in the UK. Categorization in Northern Ireland follows a similar scheme, with some minor lanes additionally labeled as ‘C-roads’.

You will be glad to hear that there are barely any toll roads. Some bridges charge a toll fee for crossing. Moreover, a 43-kilometer stretch of the M6 motorway in the Birmingham area is a toll-paying highway, known as the M6 Toll. They currently charge car drivers between £3.80 and £5.50 for using the road, depending on the time of day.

Greater London

Driving in the UK’s countryside can be very relaxing, giving you a pleasant holiday feeling; however, taking your car into larger cities – especially in the Greater London area – may test your patience. It is neither recommended nor necessary to drive in London, as the city has a comprehensive public transportation system.

The city of London has been trying to reduce its smog and pollution levels drastically. The first step in doing so is to reduce the amount of traffic in downtown London, which the city succeeded in doing by levying a “Congestion Charge” in central London. This zone, marked by a “C”, is fenced in by cameras which photograph the drivers’ license plates. You will be charged £9 to £12 when entering said zone on weekdays between 7am and 6pm. The exact amount depends on your chosen form of payment and on how quickly you settle the bill. You will need to pay by midnight on the charging day after visiting the zone to avoid a penalty and can do so online, by text message, or simply at a shop with the “Congestion Charge” sign (a white C on a red background, as depicted in this photo). The congestion charge has indeed helped decrease smog levels somewhat.

In addition, a “Low Emission Zone” was also implemented for driving in the Greater London area in 2008. The LEZ requires everyone whose vehicle does not meet strict emission standards to pay when entering and driving around the marked area. While cars and motorcycles are typically not affected, smaller vans, pickups, trucks, buses, coaches and other vehicles which do not meet the emission standards need to pay. In addition to the frequent traffic jams and the limited number of parking spaces, this is another good reason to rather avoid London even if you otherwise enjoy driving in the UK. 

InterNations Expat Magazine