General Road Rules

Rules and traffic signs in the UK

Every country has their own rules on the road, written or unwritten. It is important that you know and understand these rules before you go on the road in the UK.

The following general road rules and tips may help you adjust to driving in the UK:

  • Among the many strange habits of the British is that of driving on the left-hand side of the road. If you’re used to driving on the right it may be helpful to have a reminder (e.g. ‘think left!’) on your car’s dashboard. Take extra care when pulling out of junctions, one-way streets and at roundabouts. Remember to look first to the right when crossing the road and drivers of left-hand cars should make sure that headlights are dipped to the left when driving at night.
  • If you’re unused to driving on the left, you should be prepared for some disorientation, although most people have few problems adjusting to it. Some drivers have a real fear of driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. If this applies to you, the International Drivers Service (020-8570 9190) specialises in teaching foreigners how to survive on British roads. The traffic system, density and speed of traffic are all also completely alien to many foreigners, particularly Americans.
  • All motorists are advised to carry a warning triangle, although it isn’t mandatory. If you have an accident or a breakdown, you should signal this by switching on your hazard warning lights. If you have a warning triangle, it must be placed at the edge of the road, at least 50m behind the car on secondary roads and at least 150m on motorways.
  • There’s no priority to the right (or left) on British roads (unlike, for example, the continental priority to the right). At all crossroads and junctions, there’s either an octagonal stop sign with a solid white line on road or a triangular give way sign (dotted white line on road), where a secondary road meets a major road. ‘Stop’ or ‘give way’ may also be painted on the road surface. You must stop completely at a stop sign (all four wheels must come to rest), before pulling out on to a major road, even if you can see that no traffic is approaching. At a give way sign, you aren’t required to stop, but must give priority to traffic already on the major road.
  • The different types of traffic signs can usually be distinguished by their shape and colour as follows: a) Warning signs are mostly triangular with red borders; b) Signs within circles with a red border are mostly prohibitive; c) Signs within blue circles, but no red border give positive instructions; d) Direction signs are mostly rectangular and are distinguished by their background colour; blue for motorway signs, green for primary routes and white for secondary routes. Local direction signs often have blue borders with a white background. Signs with brown backgrounds are used to direct motorists to tourist attractions. All signs are shown in a booklet entitled Know Your Traffic Signs (see below).
  • On roundabouts (traffic circles), vehicles already on the roundabout (coming from your right) have priority over those entering it. There are many roundabouts in the UK, which, although they’re a bit of a free-for-all, speed up traffic considerably and are usually preferable to traffic lights, particularly outside rush hours (although some busy roundabouts also have traffic lights). Some roundabouts have a filter lane, reserved for traffic turning left. Traffic flows clockwise round round­abouts and not anti-clockwise as in countries where traffic drives on the right. You should signal as you approach the exit you wish to take. In addition to large roundabouts, there are also mini-roundabouts, indicated by a round blue sign. Roundabouts are particularly useful for making a U-turn when you discover that you’re travelling in the wrong direction.
  • On country roads, sharp bends are shown by signs and the severity (tightness) of a bend is indicated by white arrows on a black background (or vice versa); the more arrows, the tighter the bend (so slow down).
  • For all adults (14 years and over) the wearing of front and rear seat belts is compulsory and the driver is responsible for ensuring children under 14 use the correct seat belts or child restraints. Seat belts or restraints must be appropriate for the age and weight of a child which the law puts ito the following categories; Children up to 3 years old and Children aged 3 and above, until they reach EITHER their 12th birthday OR 135cm in height who must use the correct child seat. Children over 1.35m (4ft 5in) in height, or who are 12 or 13 years old can use adult seat belts. Child seats are designed for various weights of child. As a general guide: a) Baby seats are for babies weighing up to 13kgs (birth to 9-12 months) or until they can support their own head. They face backwards and are fitted into the front or rear of the car with a seat belt. They should never be used in the front where the front seat is protected with a frontal airbag. b) Child car seats are for children weighing between 20 to 40lb (9 to 18kg), aged nine months to about four years, and have their own straps. They face forwards and are usually fitted in the back seat of a car with a seat belt. c) Booster seats and booster cushions are for children weighing 33 to 80lb (15 to 36 kg), aged around 4 years and upwards. They are designed to raise them so they can use an adult seat belt safely across both their chest and lower abdomen.
  • Special harnesses and belts are also available for the disabled. All belts, seats, harnesses and restraints must be correctly fitted and adjusted, without which they may be useless. Some child car seats have fatal flaws and many cars have seat belt straps that are too short for rear-facing baby seats. It’s estimated that some two-thirds of child seats are wrongly fitted. The RAC (08705-722 722) has a safety video entitled There’s No Excuse! If all available restraints in a car are in use, children may travel unrestrained (although this is extremely unwise).
  • It’s estimated that seat belts would prevent 75 per cent of the deaths and 90 per cent of the injuries to those involved in accidents. Lap belts fitted in the centre rear seat of many cars are dangerous and should be replaced. In addition to the risk of death or injury, you can be fined £50 for ignoring the seat belt laws. It’s the driver’s responsibility to ensure that passengers are properly fastened. If you’re exempt from wearing a seat belt for medical reasons, a safety belt exemption certificate is required from your doctor. The ultimate protection is supposed to be afforded by airbags, although a number of deaths have been blamed on them in recent years.
  • Don’t drive in lanes reserved for buses and taxis, unless neces­sary to avoid a stationary vehicle or obstruction, and give priority to authorised users. Bus lanes are indicated by road markings and signs indicate the period of operation, which is usually during rush hours only (although some lanes are in use 24 hours a day), and which vehicles are permitted to use them. Bus drivers get irate if you illegally drive in their lane and you can be fined for doing so.
  • Headlights must be used at night on all roads except unrestricted roads with street lamps not more than 185m (200 yards) apart and subject to a speed limit of 30mph. You must use your headlamps or front fog lamps at any time when visibility is generally reduced to less than 100m. It’s legal to drive on parking (side) lights on roads with street lighting (although they do little to help you see or be seen). Headlight flashing has a different meaning in different countries. In some, it means “after you”, while in others it means “get out of my way”. In the UK, headlamp flashing has no legal status apart from warning another driver of your presence, although it’s usually used to give priority to another vehicle, e.g. when a car is waiting to exit from a junction. Hazard warning lights (all indicators operating simultaneously) are used to warn other drivers of an obstruction, e.g. an accident or a traffic jam on a motorway (using them when parking illegally has no legal significance unless you’ve broken down).
  • Front fog or spot lights must be fitted in pairs at a regulation height. Rear fog lamps should be used only when visibility is seriously reduced, i.e. to less than 100m, and shouldn’t be used when it’s just dark or raining. Unfortunately, many British drivers don’t know what fog lamps are for and use them when visibility is good, but don’t use them (or any lights) in fog.
  • The sequence of traffic lights is red, red + amber (yellow), green, amber and back to red. Red + amber is a warning to get ready to go, but you mustn’t start moving until the light changes to green. Amber means stop at the stop line. You may proceed only if the amber light appears after you’ve crossed the stop line or when stopping might cause an accident. A green filter light may be shown in addition to the full lamp signals, which means you may drive in the direction shown by the arrow, irrespective of other lights showing. You may notice that many traffic lights have an uncanny habit of changing to green when you approach them, particularly during off-peak hours. This isn’t magic: around half of the UK’s traffic signals are vehicle-activated, where sensors between 40 and 150m from the lights (depending on the speed limit) are set into the road and change the light to green unless other traffic already has priority. Signals stay at green for a minimum of seven seconds, although it can be as long as one minute.
  • At many traffic lights, cameras are installed to detect motorists driving through red lights (you receive notification around one month later and must prove that you weren’t driving to avoid prosecution). Traffic lights are placed on the left side of the road at junctions and may also be duplicated opposite.
  • Always approach pedestrian crossings with caution and don’t park or overtake another vehicle on the approach to a crossing, marked by a double line of studs or zigzag lines. At pelican (pedestrian) crossings, a flashing amber light follows the red light, to warn you to give way to pedestrians before proceeding. Pedestrians have the legal right of way once they’ve stepped on to a crossing without traffic lights and you must stop. Motorists who don’t stop are liable to heavy penalties. Where a road crosses a public footpath, e.g. when entering or emerging from property or a car park bordering a road, you must give way to pedestrians.
  • The UK lacks a rule of the road which compels slow-moving vehicles (such as tractors or cars towing caravans) to pull over to allow other traffic to overtake. The AA states that a driver towing a caravan who sees more than six vehicles following him, should pull over and let them pass, but it isn’t compulsory. Worse still, timid drivers who never overtake anything unless it’s stationary, bunch up behind slow moving vehicles, thus ensuring that nobody can overtake without having to pass a whole stream of traffic (or forcing a gap).
  • Fines can be exacted for a wide range of motoring offences, although on-the-spot fines aren’t imposed. Convictions for most motoring offences means an ‘endorsement’ of your licence, which results in penalty points being imposed. Serious offences, such as dangerous or drunken driving involving injury or death to others, can result in a prison sentence.
  • Many motorists seem to have an aversion to driving in the left-hand lane on a three-lane motor­way, which in effect reduces the motorway to two lanes. It’s illegal to overtake on an inside lane unless traffic is being channelled in a different direction. Motorists must indicate before overtaking and when moving back into an inside lane after overtaking, e.g. on a dual carriageway or motorway. Learner drivers, pedestrians, cyclists and mopeds aren’t permitted on motorways.
  • White lines mark the separation of traffic lanes. A solid single line or two solid lines means no overtaking in either direction. A solid line to the left of the centre line, i.e. on your side of the road, means that overtaking is prohibited in your direction. You may overtake only when there’s a single broken line in the middle of the road or double lines with a broken line on your side of the road. If you drive a left-hand drive car, take extra care when over­taking (the most dangerous manoeuvre in motoring) and when turning right. It’s wise to have a special overtaking mirror fitted to your car.
  • The edges of motorways and A-roads are often marked with a white line with a ribbed surface, which warns you through tyre sound and vibration when you drive too close to the edge of the road.
  • In the UK, there are three main kinds of automatic railway crossings: automatic half-barrier level crossings, automatic open crossings and open level crossings without gates or barriers. Always approach a railway level crossing slowly and stop: a) As soon as the amber light is on and the audible alarm sounds followed by flashing red warning lights (half-barrier level crossings and automatic open crossings); b)As soon as the barrier or half-barrier starts to fall (if applicable) or the gates start to close; c)In any case when a train approaches. Many automatic and manual crossings have a telephone to contact the signalman in an emergency or to ask for advice or information. In remote areas, open level crossings have no gates, barriers, attendant or traffic lights. Some level crossings have gates, but no attendant or red lights. If there’s a telephone, contact the signalman to check that it’s okay to cross; otherwise, provided a train isn’t coming, open the gates wide and cross as quickly as possible. Close the gates after crossing. Crossings without gates must be approached with extreme caution (including pedestrian railway crossings).
  • Be particularly wary of cyclists, moped riders and motorcyclists. It isn’t always easy to see them, particularly when they’re hidden by your car’s blind spots or when cyclists are riding at night without lights. When overtaking, always
    give them a wide berth. If you knock them off their bikes, you may have a difficult time convincing the police that it wasn’t your fault; far better to avoid them (and the police). Drive slowly near schools and be wary of children getting on or off buses.
  • A ‘GB’ nationality plate (sticker) must be affixed to the rear of a British- registered car when motoring abroad. Drivers of foreign-registered cars in the UK must have the appropriate nationality plate affixed to the rear of their car (not an assortment). Yellow headlights, which in the past were fitted to all vehicles in France, are illegal in the UK (except for visitors) and should be converted.
  • If you need spectacles or contact lenses to read a number plate 79.4mm high at a distance of 20.5m (67ft) in good daylight, then you must always wear them when motoring. It’s advisable to carry a spare pair of glasses or contact lenses in your car.
  • A new law was introduced on 1st December 2003 prohibiting the use of mobile phones while driving (or even stationary with the engine running), unless it’s a hands-free phone in a cradle (using headphones and a microphone is legal, provided the phone is in a cradle). Using a phone when driving is one of the most common and hazardous driving habits in the UK and has been calculated to increase the risk of an accident by some 400 per cent (even hands-free phones are considered to be unsafe, as they distract the driver’s attention). New legislation to increase the penalty for using a hand-held phone whilst driving came into force in February 2007. The fine increased to £60 and three penalty points on your licence. Penalty points can mean higher insurance costs. If you get six points within two years of passing your test, your licence will be revoked and you will need to re-sit the test. If the case goes to court, you could risk a maximum fine of £1,000, which rises to £2,500 for the driver of a bus, coach, or heavy goods vehicle
  • A booklet published by the Department for Transport entitled The Highway Code (The Stationery Office) contains advice for all road users, including motorists, motorcyclists and pedestrians. It’s available for 99p from bookshops, British motoring organisations and on the internet (www.highwaycode.gov.uk ) and is essential reading. Although The Highway Code shows many commonly used road signs, a comprehensive explanation is given in a booklet entitled Know Your Traffic Signs, available at most bookshops for £3. A free booklet entitled On the Road in Great Britain (in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish) is published by the Department for Transport and is available from British motoring organisations, travel agents and government offices.

Speed Limits

The following speed limits are in force for cars and motorcycles throughout the UK, unless traffic signs show otherwise:

Type of Road: Speed Limit

Motorways and dual-carriageways: 70mph (113kph)
Unrestricted single carriageway roads: 60mph (97kph)
Built-up areas (towns): 30mph (48kph)*
* Applies to all traffic on all roads with street lighting unless otherwise indicated by a sign.

Speed limits are marked in miles per hour, not kilometres. When towing a caravan or trailer, speed limits on all roads (except those in built-up and residential areas) are reduced by 10mph (16kph). Cars towing caravans aren’t permitted to use the outside (overtaking) lane of a three-lane motorway at any time. Speed limits for buses, coaches and goods vehicles not exceeding 7.5 tonnes are the same as when towing, except that the permitted speed limit on motorways is 70mph. Heavy goods vehicles (exceeding 7.5 tonnes) are permitted to travel at 40mph on single carriageways, 50mph on dual carriageways and 60mph on motorways.

You’re forbidden to drive in the fast lane on motorways, unless you’re overtaking, and you can be fined for doing so. Special speed limits on motorways are shown by illuminated signs and flashing lights, but aren’t usually compulsory. You can be prosecuted for driving too slowly on a motorway.

Speed cameras (both fixed and mobile) are in widespread use throughout the country. They’re allegedly mainly used to reduce traffic speed and therefore accidents, although this is disputed by motoring organisations, who maintain that they’re simply a way of increasing revenue. There are very few cameras on the country’s most dangerous stretches of roads and, since police forces have been able to retain the fines, cameras have sprouted throughout the country. Over 1 million motorists a year are prosecuted for speeding, resulting in fines of over £millions a year. The good news is that the use of speed camera alert systems isn’t illegal and they’re widely sold and used; however, the best models (such as Cyclops) which use a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) speedometer to detect cameras, cost over £350. There’s also an annual fee (around £50) to update the system.

There’s a maximum fine of £1,000 for speeding and 3-6 penalty points although the usual fine in magistrates courts is around £50. Speeding fines usually depend on an offender’s previous convictions and the speed above the limit. There’s no consistency in the punishment meted out to speeding drivers and the size of the fine and the length of a ban often depends on your legal representation, your position and standing in the community, and the leniency or otherwise of the magistrate. Average fines vary from as low as £30 to over £150 in different parts of the UK. Fines for speeding vary from a fixed penalty of £40 for marginal speeding (e.g. up to 15mph above the limit), to hundreds of pounds for speeding of 30mph or more above the limit, when you’re almost certainly prosecuted in court and may be disqualified from driving for a period.

If you’re stopped for marginal speeding, you have the choice of paying a fixed penalty or going to court. If you go to court and lose, your fine is likely to be higher and you must also pay costs (so make sure you have a good case). Usually, you’re permitted to drive 10 per cent over the limit to allow for speedometer error. So, if you’re clocked at 33mph in a 30mph zone, or 66mph in a 60mph zone, you won’t usually be prosecuted for speeding. In addition to fines, driving licences are ‘endorsed’ for most motoring offences, using a points system. A fixed penalty for speeding carries three penalty points.

Despite prosecutions and fines, speeding is common in the UK and many motorists have a complete disregard for speed limits, particularly on motorways, where they’re rarely enforced. A large number of people consistently drive at over 100mph. It’s estimated that two-thirds of drivers exceed urban speed limits and over 50 per cent of cars on motorways exceed 70mph. Needless to say, excessive speed is a contributory factor in many accidents, but just one among many, not the major cause. However, a pedestrian is almost ten times more likely to die as a result of an impact from a car driven at 40mph than one driven at 20mph.

In some areas (e.g. residential estates, private roads, school and university grounds, and car parks) there are speed bumps, known as ‘sleeping policemen’, designed to slow traffic. These are sometimes indicated by warning signs and, if you fail to slow down, it’s possible to damage your suspension or even turn your car over.

British Drivers

Like motorists in all countries, the British have their own idiosyncrasies and customs. In general, Britons have a reputation for being good drivers, and most are courteous. Unlike many other Europeans, they’re usually happy to give way to a driver waiting to enter the flow of traffic or change lanes. However, tempers are rising on the UK’s overcrowded streets and road rage (‘invented’ in California, where drivers blow their tops and attack or drive into other motorists) is becoming more common. It’s often provoked by tailgating, headlight flashing, obscene gestures, obstruction and verbal abuse, so be careful how you behave when driving. Although British drivers are generally law-abiding (except with regard to speed limits), a recent survey found that millions would drive on the wrong side of the law if they thought they could get away with it.

Many drivers are afraid of motorways and have little idea how to drive on them; common faults include poor lane discipline, undertakers (motorists who overtake on the inside), driving too fast in poor conditions (e.g. fog and heavy rain), and driving much too close to the vehicle in front. Many motorists drive too close and have no idea of safe stopping distances. The Highway Code states that the safe stopping distance (including thinking distance, the time it takes for drivers to react) is 75ft (23m) at 30mph/50kph, 175ft (53m) at 50mph/80kph and 315ft (96m) at 70mph/113kph.

These stopping distances are on dry roads, for cars with good brakes and tyres, in good visibility with an alert driver (if you’re half asleep and driving an old banger on a wet or icy road, you had better not exceed 10mph; otherwise you will never stop in an emergency). Although these distances may appear generous, many other countries recommend longer stopping distances. If further proof is needed of how dangerous and wide­spread tailgating is, simply witness the statistics on the number of ‘concertina’ (multiple car) accidents in the UK, particularly on motorways in bad weather conditions. As a safety precaution, try to leave a at least a three car length gap between your car and the vehicle in front. This isn’t just to allow you more time to stop, should the vehicles in front decide to get together, but also to give a tailgater more time to stop. The closer the car behind you, the further you should be from the vehicle in front. Motorway police criticise motorists for driving too close, too fast and for not looking far enough ahead.

One thing most foreigners immediately notice when driving in the UK is the speed at which most people drive, which is often 50 per cent above the prevailing speed limit. The exception to this rule is the ubiquitous ‘Sunday driver’, so-called because he rarely drives on any other day of the week and is never actually going anywhere, but just enjoying the scenery (hence his maximum 20mph speed). You will also notice that many motorists are reluctant to use their lights in poor visibility or until it’s completely dark at night; even then, they may use parking lights only in areas with street lighting. Sometimes it’s just as well that people fail to use their headlights, as many are badly adjusted and dazzle oncoming drivers (it’s hard to believe they’re ever checked during the annual serviceability test).

One of the biggest problems when motoring in towns and most residential areas, is the vast number of cars parked (legally or illegally) on roads, so that you have to stop because your side of the road is completely blocked or because oncoming traffic isn’t keeping far enough over to its side of the road to allow you sufficient room to pass. Parked cars are also particularly hazardous when pulling out of busy junctions. (many more of which should have roundabouts).

Take it easy when driving in winter. Although heavy snow is rare, particularly in the south, the UK has a lot of fog and ice, which make driving extremely hazardous (it also gets dark at around 4pm or even earlier in the north). Black ice is also common and is the most dangerous sort, because it cannot be seen. When road conditions are bad, allow two to three times longer than usual to reach your destination.

This article is an extract from Living and working in Britain. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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