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Driving in the United Kingdom: Wikis


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Driving in the United Kingdom is governed by various legal powers and in some cases is subject to the passing of a driving test. The government produce a Highway Code that details the requirements of all road users, including drivers.


Speed limits

British roads are generally limited for some vehicles by the National Speed Limit. Speed limits are the maximum speed at which certain drivers may legally drive on a road rather than a defined appropriate speed, and in some cases the nature of a road may dictate that one should drive significantly slower than the speed limit may allow. This restricts some vehicles by default to a speed of 30mph in built up areas, and some light vehicles to 60mph on single carriageways and 70mph on dual carriageways and motorways, with some large vehicles or some of those towing trailers subject to reduced limits on some roads depending on the class of both road and vehicle. Sections of road subject to the national or in-town speed limit only require limit marker signs at the start of a section, without repeaters, provided street lights are or are not present as appropriate. Speed limits of 20 mph, 30 mph, 40 mph, 50 mph and 60mph are also used on roads in the UK where it is deemed that the national or in-town speed limit is inappropriate, with repeater signs posted at regular intervals. Transgression of speed limits is common on motorways, where a majority of car drivers tend to exceed the 70mph limit if traffic conditions permit.

Traffic lights

Traffic lights are normally found at busy junctions in urban areas or at junctions between busy main roads in villages. They are also used to control the flow of traffic over narrow bridges, around corners where it would not be practical for traffic to flow in both directions, at pedestrian crossings and at temporary narrowings caused by roadworks. In all cases, the following phases are used:

  • Red: Stop.
  • Red and amber: Stop. The next phase will be green.
  • Green: Proceed with caution. The green light gives permission for vehicles to proceed, but does not guarantee that there will not be other vehicles on conflicting paths.
  • Amber: Stop unless it isn't safe to do so. The next phase will be red.
  • Red: The cycle starts over again.

Two other phases are used in special circumstances:

  • Flashing amber: At pedestrian crossings a flashing amber light may follow the red phase. This has the special meaning that vehicles may proceed if all pedestrians using the crossing have finished crossing the road. If pedestrians who have already started crossing have not finished doing so, drivers should wait for them to reach the other side before moving, even if this requires them to wait after the lights have turned green.
  • Green arrow: This is used at junctions to indicate that traffic progressing in the direction indicated by the arrow may proceed, overriding any red light displayed at the same time. It is a more specific signal than the green light, as it also indicates that any other traffic flows which could conflict with the indicated directions have now been stopped.

Lane discipline

Drivers on dual carriageways (which may or may not be motorways) are usually expected to use the left-most lane unless overtaking other vehicles on the road, unless signs or road markings indicate that the left-most lane(s) is only for traffic leaving at the next junction. Drivers who wish to overtake a slower vehicle are thus expected to move out from their lane (having used the indicator lights to warn other road-users of their intention to do so), pass the slower vehicle and return to the left-most lane. This enables faster traffic to overtake unhindered if it wishes to do so. On the UK's busiest roads, where there may be four or more lanes in each direction, there is often a situation where overtaking becomes continual as each successive lane moves at a slightly faster speed than that to its left. "Undertaking" - where the driver moves to the left of a slower moving vehicle to get past it is illegal on motorways and dual carriageways, drivers must always overtake on the right. It is only legal if in heavy traffic and the vehicle to your right is moving slower than you are, or if you are on a one way street.

Pedestrian crossings

There are two broad categories of pedestrian crossing to aid the safe passage across major roads by those travelling on foot. There are no laws against jaywalking in the UK.

  • Traffic Light Controlled Crossings: Drivers are controlled by traffic light signals.
  • Zebra Crossings: Black and white stripes are painted on the road and flashing amber belisha beacons are on each side of the road. Drivers must give way to pedestrians on the crossing.

Use of the Horn

According to the Highway Code, a car's horn should only be used to alert other drivers of one's presence on the road. However, its use in other circumstances is so prevalent that this interpretation is rarely understood. Instead, the horn is more normally used to express annoyance at other road users. The potential for misinterpretation is such that many drivers avoid using the horn at all. It is also considered acceptable to alert a driver in front that the lights have gone green if they have not realised for a significant time after the change. A short, sharp beep is normally enough. UK Drivers will not normally use the horn where traffic is clearly stationary, for example in a traffic jam.

Flashing of Headlamps

Like the use of the horn, the flashing of a vehicle's headlamps should strictly be used only to alert other road users of a vehicle's presence on the road. However, the action actually has a multitude of interpretations, some of which are contradictory. These include:

  • Indicating that a driver is giving way to other road users. (usually 2 brief flashes) such as allowing a car to pull out of a minor side road.
  • Indicating that a driver is allowing another to change lanes on a multi-lane road. (also usually 2 brief flashes)
  • Alerting oncoming drivers that they are approaching a problem or speed trap. (usually a multitude of brief flashes in quick succession)
  • Complaining that other road users are driving inappropriately (for instance, by using fog lights unnecessarily, not dipping their lights when approaching oncoming traffic on country roads or not returning to the left-most lane on a dual-carriageway to allow faster vehicles to overtake. (usually 1 or 2 long flashes)
  • When large vehicles overtake the rear vehicle will flash their lights to signal to the overtaking one that its trailer is clear and it can pull in.
  • Signal something is wrong to another car, such as fuel filler door open or no lights at night.
  • Recognition of other motorists driving similar vehicles (for instance, minis, volkwagen type 2s, buses or sports cars).

A general rule of thumb appears to be that short flashes are usually friendly, and long flashes hostile.

Driving licence

Driving licences may be obtained by any UK resident over the age of 17, subject to certain conditions. Initially, a provisional licence is issued, which restricts the holder to driving whilst accompanied by a driver who is at least 21 years old, who has held a full licence in the category of vehicle they are supervising the learner driver in for at least three years, and does not allow the provisional licence holder to drive on motorways. The provisional licence may be exchanged for a full licence after the holder has passed the United Kingdom driving test. On reaching the age of 70, drivers may apply to have their licences renewed with their doctors' permission.

Many foreign driving licences permit one to drive in the UK, but must be exchanged for British licences after a year. Drivers from the USA, however, must take a British test if they wish to drive in the UK for more than a year after arriving in the country. This is because US driver licensing is carried out by individual states, but the US Constitution does not permit individual states to enter bilateral treaties with other sovereign governments.


Some of the rules of the road should be enforced by the police, others are enforced by council wardens. Speed cameras are common. Red-light and bus lane cameras are also used. Motorists convicted of certain traffic, and certain non-traffic offences may have have 'points' added to their licences: some traffic offences such as exceeding the speed limit by a small amount, typically warrant three points, and motorists with twelve points face an automatic driving ban.

See also




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