As a study abroad student, you never think you’ll be an American driving in England. It’s not even remotely on your list of things to worry or care about, and you happily spend your semester darting in and out of traffic because you forgot to look the right way. Even after I had lived in the UK for awhile, I was adamant that you would never catch me driving here.
…of course, as life would have it, we eventually found a great flat in a perfect location that required me to drive to the train station and suddenly my worst fear had come true.
I’m not a nervous driver in America, and I grew up in Florida where you can get your license when you’re basically just out of the womb, so I’d been driving for years. I knew how to operate a car and that green meant go and not to turn the radio up too loud so you don’t get distracted and die in a fiery wreck (thanks, mom).
But driving in the UK as an American? ARE YOU KIDDING ME? IS THIS A JOKE?. Not only are you driving on the other side of the road, but have you seen UK roads? I can hardly fit myself through some of these single track roads after a big breakfast, much less while driving a giant hunk of metal. And I’m not alone in my feelings.
The UK was also laid out far before cars were invented, which means that many roads feel like a cross between a rollercoaster and a narrow escape from certain death. And do not even get me started on the more complicated roundabouts. Why do bad things happen to good people?
I decided to stick with driving an automatic, despite the fact that the vast majority of Brits drive manual cars. I wasn’t prepared to learn a manual and learn to drive on the other side at the same time, though plenty of people make the switch successfully.
The first step was to buy a used car because I couldn’t practice without one. Once that was sorted, I enlisted the help of my boyfriend who had been driving here for almost a decade. Unfortunately, while I love him and am very thankful for his risking his life to teach me, I was too much of a nervous wreck for it to go smoothly. Our conversations in the car usually went something like this:
Me: “Oh my god, oh my god. I’m so nervous.”
Him: “You’re doing fine. Just don’t get so far to the left.”
Me: “STOP SHOUTING AT ME!”
Him: “I’m not shouting at you. OH MY GOD, WHY ARE YOU DRIVING ME INTO A BUSH?!”
Me, almost crying: “I CAN’T DO THIS, MAKE IT STOP, MAKE IT STOP!”
Him: “PULL OVER, I’M DRIVING!”
Me, now actually crying: “I HATE THIS. I’M MOVING BACK TO AMERICA!”
Eventually I learned to be less of a lunatic and got the hang of it, though I drove slower than any self-respecting grandma and was often passed by walkers.
After about six months of driving on my own, it was time to prepare to take the UK Driving test, as you can only drive up to one year on an American license. That nerve-wracking story and my top tips for foreigners learning to drive in the UK continues here.