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:

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. © 2003-2023 Just Landed