Some of you may remember: I am German. That means, when I was 17 years old (like twenty whole years ago?!), I learned to drive. In a car that has the steering wheel on the left side of the car, while I had to drive on the right side of the street. Like most people on this planet’s. There are few exceptions. So when we planned our Trip Of A Lifetime to the Holy Land a.k.a. Scotland, there was a decision to be made. No, not true. The decision was made, because I am travelling with Sammy, my dog. Since neither the plane nor the ferry are in any way dog friendly, there was only one way to get on the island: by Eurotunnel, driving my own car.
Before the trip, people were full of admiration about my courage. I didn’t quite get it, to be honest. To me it’s rather a question of necessity than courage. There is one way to get to where I want to go, so if I do want to get there, I have to take it. We prepared our trip in November 2016, over nine months ahead of time. So from that point on until the moment when we were crossing the Channel, I never really gave much thought to it. I had heard, that ususally people quickly adjust and I just assumed, that I would be no different. Until deep unter the Channel. Because then it hit me: When I start the engine the next time, I have to drive on the left. There are many, many cars behind me. The driver’s will get annoyed if I slow them down. It’s late, so they will want to get home – or wherever. I don’t know the town. I don’t know my way to the hotel (despite the navigational system). Siobhan was quite stunned at my dramatic outbreaks.
Before we went, we updated ourselves on the traffic rules in Britain, of course. Also I asked google if people shared their experiences – although I didn’t do that thoroughly, truth be told. At the end of the trip I thought it would be nice to have write down an account for anyone who is wonderin about what Driving Left is all about, how it feels, how much time it takes and so on. So here it is.
- Preparing the Mind – keep it clean!
Don’t think too much about it. It just occupies your brain so you don’t have the space to actually process the experience as you go along. Driving, however, requires exactly that.
- The Co-Pilot
Take a co-pilot with you. And talk about his or her duties beforehand. This is valid for any long trip by car, but even more so in a country where traffic happens on your wrong side of the street. The co-pilot has to be just as watchful as the driver, without delivering information in an emotional manner – because that will distract the driver and could lead to accidents that otherwise might not have happened. Also the co-pilot should be the navigator as well as the driver. And keep you awake on long trips. This is even more important when driving left, because
- No Autopilot
your brain adepts quickly. That is true. Because it has to. But, and that’s the biggie, only as long as you are watchfull and awake. It takes a while before you can switch on to autopilot like you could in your own country or the countries where you can drive on your right side of the street. For me it took about a week before I would automatically chose the right side of the streets at junctions or in similar situations. The first week driving on the left was easy enough, but when my brain wanted to switch on to autopilot, the probability to make mistakes got higher. It’s the co-pilot who made sure, it didn’t really happen.
- On Autopilot
Autopilot starts working after about a week (at least that was my time frame) of road trip. Meaning: I ususally drove all day. It might take longer if you drive less.
- Don’t be too sure of yourself!
Still, don’t rely on yourself. On Skye we had a funny encounter. You can drive around North Skye on a single track road. So only one vehicle fits on the track. When two vehicles meet, they have to use one of the many passing places to pass each other. I was driving back to Uig, when a caravan came into view. I stopped at the passing place to my right, to let it pass by. But the driver just stopped on the street, opposite me. In my head I was like ‚what am I doing wrong? Am I really on the left side? Where’s the mistake??‘. Then I spotted it. The driver was Dutch. So I pointed to the right side of the road (his left). It seemed to wake him up because he slapped his own forehead and proceeded on the right left side of the street. This was funny, but it’s also interesting, because even if he came up by ferry, he must have been driving the country for quite some time to get to the North of Skye. Long story short: don’t be too secure. Stay watchfull. The right driving reflex sits deep after all these years on right driving streets.
Another funny thing happened on the street from the Fairy Pools back to Portree. There was a line, cars lining up in front of a closed street. We didn’t know why, only that we could pass in about 10 minutes. So we waited patiently, when suddenly a German caravan came speeding past us on the right side of the street. Not only that, he even hunked at us. Like he wanted to say ‚you silly idiots, what are you doing on the wrong side of the street while the right side is clear? I’ll show you how it’s done!‘. Well, he came to crashing halt at the closed road sign, was pulled out and had to wait even longer before he could pass. So, really, don’t get arrogant.
- Friendly Suggestions
Driving in the UK is a challenge, I would imagine, especially for us Germans. Here in Germany, traffic is handled a lot stricter. I often felt like tempo limits, stopp-signs, prohibitions to overtake or ’stay-on-lane‘-requests were more of a friendly recommendations than an actual rule. That’s the German part in me, I guess 😉
However, I would very much like a more consequent way lead the way. Here in Germany I am used to have a sign telling me where to go on just about every junction. That’s not necessarily so in the UK. Like when we drove out of Folkestone, back to the Euroshuttle, we simply followed the signs. The Tunnel is close, so there was no beforehand researching necessary, right? Well, no. On the way there was a rondabout. Neither while coming up to it nor on any possible exit was there an indication which of the exits might be the one to lead to the Tunnel. We drove around the roundabout two times to double check before chosing our exit by instinct – which was right. This is one example, but there are many of them. So driving around the UK, you better take a close look at a map or have your navigational system at the ready. For me it’s the first option, because I really hate navigational systems.
I found that a good old map and some planning in advance is all you need – but that you need. In Scotland there are not so many roads as we are used to, so remembering the key points where you have to turn right, chose an exit and so on, ist really all you need. But sometimes, roads are closed. Like on the day we came down from Strathpeffer and were on our way to Inverness. We didn’t take the East Route, because we hadn’t been at Loch Ness before (and you cannot stop at Loch Ness when visiting Scotland for the first time, can you? But the second time you may well leave it out. It’s not that special, really). So we decided to take the road down to Fort William and drive through lovely Glencoe again. Only at Fort William we got redirected almost to Oban, which is located on the West Coast, due to a horrific motorbike accident (I was told later on). This can happen any time in the Highlands, so a good knowledge of your whereabouts and your options is very helpfull.
- Streets in the UK
We started our trip trough the UK at Folkestone, up to Skye, from there to Harris and Lewis first, then Inverness, from there to the North Coast and the East Coast, back to the West Coast, then to Edinburgh and at last back down to Folkestone via Yorkshire. I believe, I have just about experienced any type of road in the UK you can drive with a normal vehicle. The motorways work a little differently than I am used to. Like you have to watch out for ’services‘ to get fuel, visit the restroom or take a break, and leave the motorway for it. The speed limit is 70 mph (that is 112 km/h). But that seems to be a friendly suggestion, too. Don’t take that as a license to speed, though. You really don’t want to get penalties and they do check. At least in the crowded south. Not so much in the North, but speeding there… well, try. The A-Streets can be eiher very similar to the motorway – only sometimes there is a junction and someone might like to turn right, crossing your lane (yes, that’s allowed), or pedestrians would like to cross (just as legal), so be aware of that. The A-Streets may however also look and feel like B-street or worse. Like on Harris or North Skye. This depends a lot on where you are.
- Traffic in the UK
I used to think traffic in Germany was bad. And yes, we do have some annoying points on our map where people are losing their life’s time in traffic jams or on congested streets. This is nothing in comparison to what’s happening on UK motorways. We didn’t think we would get by London without a traffic jam, of course. And we didn’t. From the minute we joined the M20 and passed Maidstone, we didn’t come to far. It took us a long time to get past London, but when we were, we felt really relieved. That feeling didn’t last long, though, because there wasn’t too much change in conditions until after Lancaster. I asked people at the services, if it was an exception, but no, that’s the way it normally is. So in planning your road trip through the UK, keep that in mind. For Germans it means, that you should add 50% to 100% of travelling time to what you’re used to from our streets. 500 km in 5 to 6 hours? Forget it. It’ll be rather 8 to 9.
In the North, beyond the motorways, that’s different of course. But even up to Glasgow or Edinburgh, you better prepare yourself and bring time. We didn’t because we weren’t aware of it. So our second day was 12 hours on the streets. I am still waiting for the nigtmare where I am back on that road, hardly moving, never arriving. If you want to get from the South to Scotland in one day, do it at night. Check in a hotel and book a Late Check-Out, leave in the evening and arrive at night at a place where you booked Late Check-In. That’ll work just fine. That’s how we’ll do it next time.
- The Car
This is related to what I wrote about the Co-Pilot. Bring your own car, by all means. It works great. If you’re traveling by yourself, though, use a local car. Because of the blind angle to the right.
I don’t know about you. I am not the fearful kind of person and I like a challenge. I think that helps, because I don’t think too much and litter my head with all kinds of fears – which would then slow down the reaction rate I need to function well in traffic. So, if you are like me, you should have no problem. Just enjoy. And afterwards be proud of yourself. I am. Almost 5,000 km on UK streets, that’s an accomplishment. And I cannot wait to come back!