The reasons for why the British drive on the left range from the Ancient Romans steering their chariots left-handed to keep their right hand free for weapon-wielding, to 18th century Londoners being told to keep left of London Bridge to ease congestion. It became actual law in 1835 and as part of the Highway Act, the British were legally bound to drive on the left. This was then adopted across the British Empire.
While a history lesson helps to make sense of the why, it doesn’t help the right-side-driving rest of the world (minus the likes of Australia, New Zealand and Japan, where motorists also drive on the left) adapt when they hit British shores and are confronted with 'drive on the left' signs.
So we've put together the ultimate list of dos and don'ts, and helpful tips and tricks to make driving on the left feel like second nature.
Inside the car
You probably think it’s just the side of the road but don’t forget the inside of the car is completely different too.
1. Get an automatic transmission
Whether you’re buying or renting, the easiest way to acclimatise is by eliminating the confusion of a manual gearstick (or stickshift, if you’re American). Just using the accelerator and brake and not having to worry about working your way through the gears with your left hand, makes driving on the left much less stressful.
2. Get to know the car first
Before you race off in a hurry, take some time to park up and familiarise yourself with all the car controls. While most car makers carry over their left-hand drive controls into right-hand drive models, some things might be located differently from how you'd expect. It’s really important to make sense of it all stationary so don’t panic once you’re on the road.
3. Start each day with a refresh
It’s tempting to think you’re a dab hand by day two and want to head straight off. But take a few minutes at the start of each day to refresh yourself. Go over everything in the car again, just to make sure the differences are front and centre of your mind.
Out on the road
1. Get a quick lesson
When you arrive you might find it very beneficial to book in with a local driving instructor for an hour-long session. You’ll likely pay around £30 and, hopefully, end up feeling more confident, comfortable, and versed in the laws of driving on the left. It’s seriously good money spent and takes so much pressure off the rest of your trip.
2. Don’t drive when you land
If possible, get a transfer from the airport to your hotel so you can sleep off any travel weariness or jet lag before you have to deal with driving on the left. If you’re coming off a ferry then similarly stop for a break or stay in a portside hotel. If both of those are unavoidable, then try and get in at a reasonable time so you aren’t starting your first drive on the left in the early hours of the morning or late at night when you’re tired.
3. Buy excess cover insurance
You can often sign up for excess cover insurance for a few extra pounds a day and it’s worth every penny. If you do have a bump then you don’t have to worry about the expense. It’s a real hack!
4. Give yourself extra time
This is not the moment for a mad dash through the streets because you’re late. Make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to drive at a relaxed pace because it’s well-known that a high proportion of accidents happen when people are rushing. Your reaction times can be slower if you aren’t used to driving on the left, so a few more minutes will be very beneficial.
5. Let your passengers help you out
For once, the shotgun passenger can be helpful rather than irritating, and it’s very useful to let them do the distracting tasks like navigating, turning up the AC or checking road stop signs, etc. Avoiding distractions is very important!
6. Remember your mirrors
It’s probably the most disconcerting moment of driving on the left; looking in your mirrors and pavement is where you'd expect to see cars. It's a hard ask trying to make sense of this while pulling out, so make sure you turn and check over your shoulder.
A moment of potential sheer panic is coming up to your first left-sided roundabout. We feed in on the left and drive round clockwise, which can be very confusing to newcomers. Take roundabouts very slowly and follow the car in front. Try and make sure you’re in the correct lane going on as this makes life 100x easier than having to switch lanes halfway round.
8. Pedestrians and zebra crossings
Instinctively, if you usually drive on the right you look for people crossing on the right but remember, if you’re driving on the left they will step out from the left, too! Also, check the rules of the Highway Code to see who has priority at different junctions, and remember pedestrians ALWAYS have priority at zebra crossings, even if there are no lights.
Now you're well versed, the only thing to do is to go out there and hit the road, driving on the left! Good luck.
By Freda Lewis-Stempel