Scotland hills with empty roads

Of all my travels outside the U.S., going back almost 40 years, I had never driven in a “left-side-of-the-road” country until this past August when we visited Scotland. In preparation, I was amused by one YouTube video that included the warning: “be careful of rain…and sheep.” Alas, despite that popular image of idling in the hinterland surrounded by a flock of ungulates, our challenges were decidedly less ovine-based and dealt much more with the learning curve needed for left-lane/right-brain cranial rewiring.

There is a lot to cover, so let’s hit the most important pointers:

  • One curiosity I had was whether the pedals are reversed like the steering column is; thankfully, they are not. This is more important than you may realize because the normal “stop” reflex is to reach for the left pedal…so, fortunately, that context stays intact.
  • Even if you are a proficient standard-transmission driver in “right lane” countries, give serious consideration to renting automatic. It will cost more but, with everything else you need to adapt to, shifting with your left hand and managing the clutch may be a bridge too far. If you do rent standard, note that the gear box is not reversed.
  • If possible, try not to drive at night or in bad weather until you feel confident during daytime and in good weather. For me, this took a few days. Plan for a daytime airport arrival if possible, as driving on the left and in an unfamiliar city and at night (and if the weather is bad) could be very unnerving – if not outright dangerous.
  • Similarly, try to get comfortable on major arteries before traveling on more rural, narrower roads. Some are single-lane, two-way roads – some have intermittent pull-outs for oncoming traffic, but not always. These become additionally challenging with wider oncoming traffic like buses and semis.
  • Generally, even once you think you’re comfortable, remember that every new unfamiliar variable will exponentially tax your instincts and reflexes.
  • For longer day trips where you’re more likely to be driving in the dark and/or tired, consider taking a bus or train. Another factor: with gas exceeding $5/gallon, a bus or train also may be more economical.
  • I was surprised to learn that posted speed limits in the UK are in miles (not km) per hour. If you have already driven elsewhere in Europe this is important because the signage (round, with a red-circle perimeter) is otherwise identical.
  • To avoid angering local drivers, remember the “slow” lane is also reversed: the fast/passing lane is on the right. This is especially important on two-lane highways.
  • Roundabouts are ubiquitous in Scotland. Even in your home country, these can be a challenge if you are unfamiliar with them. The etiquette is important anyway (cars in the roundabout have the right-of-way, and cars entering must yield), so abroad this can be a challenge. In the UK – again, with things generally being reversed – roundabout traffic flows clockwise.
  • One general warning from Scottish locals: from their experience, traffic accidents involving foreigners have two main causes: wrong-way highway drivers; and turning into oncoming traffic. For oncoming traffic and when pulling out of intersections, you have to reverse your thinking. In right-lane countries, the rule of thumb is to look left, then right, then left again before pulling out. In Scotland, it’s right-left-right. This is important to remember when crossing streets as a pedestrian, too!
  • Be mindful of – and don’t ever 100% “trust” – your normal reflexes. An extra 10 seconds at an intersection, turn, or exit could save your – or others’ – lives. Don’t…rush…
  • Drunk driving laws are strict. Breath test limits are one-fourth those in the U.S. For the average person, you are likely to be legally impaired after just one drink, and even first-offense penalties are harsh. Especially if you plan to do distillery tours/tastings (like we did), a bus or train is a very prudent “must.”

Two other general tips:

  • Forego the additional expense of in-car GPS on your rental (Scotland was £12 extra per day, which can add up quickly). Instead, upon arrival we bought a £10 UK SIM card, inserted it into our cell phone, and in addition to having all the other functions of a local phone (not the least of which being the ability to dial “999” – the UK version of emergency “911” in the U.S.), we also were able to use the GPS map function. We were very pleasantly surprised to learn that this worked even in the most rural areas of the country – it proved to be the most economical expense of our entire trip.
  • Coming from the U.S., at least, an international driver’s license is not required in the UK. Check the rules in your home country before spending the money on one.

One last thought: drivers coming to, say, the U.S. from left-lane countries can use many of these tips…in reverse!

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