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The Highway Code and the Madness of Rental Cars in the U.K.

Before driving in England, read this

I regularly travel to England. Most of the time I arrange a press car, but sometimes a last-minute trip necessitates going the traditional rental route — a hire car, in Brit speak. A recent whirlwind visit to the U.K. warranted a stop at the Hertz desk upon arrival. Something hit me as I danced a Renault Kadjar hire car (hire crossover?) through the endless roundabouts outside Heathrow airport: Driving in England is completely different. The fact that nearly any American holding a valid U.S. driver’s license can walk jetlagged off a transatlantic flight and legally hop into a right-hand-drive automobile in a completely unfamiliar environment is absolutely crazy.

I’m one of very few Americans who enjoys — wait, knows — the Highway Code. First published in 1931, it’s the guidebook to driving in England, Wales, and Scotland. (I know it makes me a complete nerd, but I love studying the quirky rules and regulations of the British roads.) Being up to speed on the Highway Code is a must if you wish to fully understand British speed limits.

For instance, a sign featuring a white circle with a diagonal black line informs drivers that the road carries the national speed limit. What is the national speed limit? That depends on the road. It’s 70 mph on motorways (highways) and dual carriageways (divided roads with a median) and 60 mph on a single carriageway (undivided road). Additionally, the maximum speed allowed in built-up areas (cities) is 30 mph unless otherwise posted.

You must also think before blowing the horn. It’s against the law to beep the horn unless you are stationary in your vehicle, and you’re not allowed to use the horn between the hours of 11:30 p.m. and 7 a.m. except when another road user poses a danger. Furthermore, front and rear fog lights must be used when visibility is severely reduced, and “you must switch them off when visibility improves to avoid dazzling other road users.”

Beyond the Highway Code are Britain’s licensing requirements, which are far more stringent. And if you’re moving to the U.K. permanently, you must obtain a British driving license within 12 months. Step one is a two-part theory test that consists of multiple-choice questions and a hazard perception video test. Once you successfully complete this not-painless-to-pass portion, it’s on to the practical (driving) test. Fewer than 50 percent of Brits pass their test on the first attempt. Also, if you take the test in a vehicle with an automatic transmission, you can’t legally drive a car with a stick.

As it so happens, a friend of mine who recently moved to the U.K. from the U.S. is currently going through the British licensing process. Despite growing up in right-hand-drive Australia, she’s not entirely confident of passing the driving test on her first try. “It’s a lot more difficult [than in America],” she says. “For one, you’re expected to know where you are at all times. You can take the test in any town because your area of the country may have a solid three- or four-month waiting list. The tester can ask you to drive to the town center with no further instruction — unlike in he U.S. where the tester tells you to take a right or left while you’re driving. If it’s raining, like it often is in England, that means you’re looking for signs that indicate the city center through sweeping wipers and possibly — likely — lots of traffic.”

Still, she’s not daunted. “I’m planning on getting a manual license. I don’t want to only drive an automatic. Most everyone drives a manual. In fact, a friend of mine in the U.K. hates driving an automatic. It makes her nervous. She prefers a manual because she feels she has more control of the car. She actually asked me what you do with your left foot when it’s not dipping the clutch. She thinks driving would quickly become boring (with an automatic), as you don’t have enough to do.”

The more stringent test procedure seems to be paying off, as it surely has something to do with the far lower traffic-related death rate in the U.K., which has busier and narrower roads. Looking at 2015 data, there were 12.9 fatalities per 100,000 vehicles in the U.S. versus 5.1 in the U.K.. It also likely helps that Britain has a vehicle inspection process and drivers can be ticketed for safety infringements such as driving on bald tires.

Fortunately, the U.K. is easy to navigate without a car, at least as long as you’re not heading out into the countryside, so skipping the rental may be the less crazy option than trying to adapt to British traffic. If possible, follow the example of my parents and secure the services of a local.

On their first visit to England several years ago, I collected my mother and father at London’s Heathrow airport in a Land Rover LR4. The journey north on the M40 motorway toward Birmingham didn’t seem too crazy to my folks — my dad even said that it didn’t feel too different from America outside of the position of the steering wheel. Once we turned onto the narrow lanes in rural Warwickshire, however, both kept repeating how happy they were not to be driving.

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