Why Even Good Drivers Need Driving Lessons (in the UK)

Yesterday, I got my UK driving licence — on my first try (after 20 hours of lessons), and with only three minor faults, despite being a bundle of nerves and taking what felt like an hour just to parallel park. To celebrate, my friend Stephanie suggested I blog about it. So, in the ex-pat spirit of this blog, here are the Top Five Differences between the practical driving test in the UK and the ones in the US. (Caveat: I never even took a practical driving test in the US, because I’m from Arizona!) Limiting this to only five was a bit of challenge, so feel free to ask questions or list your own tips in the comments below. My list is pretty different from some of the ones out there that are just for Americans visiting the UK (who are just trying to stay alive on the road and not get a ticket, which is a different thing entirely). For more details pertaining to American ex-pats in the UK check out this site.

Before we get started, keep in mind that to pass the test you can accumulate no more than 15 minor faults. More than 15 minor faults, or just one major fault, and you fail. If, on the test, you do anything that causes another vehicle to alter what they otherwise would have done (e.g., if they have to slow down even slightly because of you), it’s considered a major fault.

1. Mirrors Are God

As mentioned briefly in my earlier post about the written/theory test, the UK driving test is all about mirror checks. You’ve gotta check your interior mirror, and then the side mirrors, before you do anything. Seriously, ANYTHING. Not just changing lanes, but before speeding up, slowing down, or turning on your turn signal. And what’s more, turning on your turn signal should always precede breaking. “Mirror, signal, brake” will become your little mantra for how to make any turn. Every time you diverge from that Order Which Rules All Things, you will receive a minor fault!

2. You Drive Badly

When I started lessons the first thing I had to do was relearning how to drive. I drove a stick-shift for many years in the U.S. and had picked up all sorts of atrocious habits, like keeping the clutch in too often, like while making a turn from a main road into a side street, or while coasting into a red light. Keeping the clutch in results in reduced control over the car, and so doing so can result in a minor fault on the test. The other thing was that, like most Americans, I previously only used the handbrake to park the car. Silly me! As mentioned in my earlier post, you’re meant to use the handbrake at ANY time during the course of driving when the car is stopped. I have to say, now I kinda like it. Among other things, it’s definitely easier to start from a stopped position on a hill.

3. Drive in Reverse into a Side Street

Everyone hates the manoeuvres. Yes, manoeuvres, not maneuvers — these babies are distinctly British. There are four possible manoeuvres; on the test they ask you to perform one of them. Parallel parking and a three-point turn are easy enough for Americans; just make sure to use that handbrake, and stop and check your blind spot, at every. single. damn. point. of. the. turn. The third manoeuvre is to reverse into a parking spot — sort of weird for some of us, and an easy one to mess up on the first try, but not utterly foreign. It’s the fourth one that has all us Yanks scratching our heads: reversing around a corner. Many UK roads are very narrow, and so sometimes it’s not possible to do a three-point turn when you need to turn around. The alternative in such a case is to turn around in a side street. But you can’t legally drive in reverse on a main road, so you have to drive in reverse into the side street in order to get yourself turned around legally. The thing is, on the test, you have to do this while staying within 1-2 feet of the left kerb and without ever crossing into the side street’s opposite lane. Make sense? Yeah.

4. Position Left to Go Straight

You’ll get the basics of entering and exiting roundabouts pretty quickly. The challenge is doing so in the correct lane, and using the turn signals in the right way. If you’re turning left or right it’s obvious; just enter the roundabout from the respective lane; signal left for left, and right for right (but switch your signal to left as you pass the last exit before your exit… obviously, right?). But funnily enough, that thing which should be easiest — just going straight — is the most perplexing. To go straight, you need to enter the roundabout in the left lane, even if ‘lanes’ aren’t actually painted on the road. And this is true even if the exit to go ‘straight’ is actually positioned to your right as you enter the roundabout… which is potentially very confusing. Also, although you might be moving into the left lane in order to go straight, don’t signal left until you’ve entered the roundabout and passed the first exit. If you do, and if there’s a car there, and it looks like the driver of the car might possibly have been confused by your early turn signal, you will fail the test.

5. Drive on the Left, while Sitting on the Right

Those who haven’t studied for the test often make a big deal about this one, probably because it’s the most visible difference from outside of the car. But trust me, once you get behind the wheel this is by far the least of your concerns!

Good luck and happy driving! If anyone needs a tip for a good driving instructor in Edinburgh, let me know. 🙂

Green lights ahead: West Crosscauseway & Buccleuch Street, Edinburgh

Green lights ahead: West Crosscauseway & Buccleuch Street, Edinburgh (photo by Lauren Hall-Lew)



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38 Responses to Why Even Good Drivers Need Driving Lessons (in the UK)

  1. Stephanie says:

    I’ve always been confused about the handbrake thing when watching drivers in Taiwan: how does it make it better to start on hills? And does this mean that most UK car models have handbrakes instead of those step-on foot brakes?

    • vocalised says:

      Because you use your feet to find the right balance between the clutch and the accelerator (‘the bite’) without worrying about also having to keep a foot on the brake to prevent rolling backwards. So you’re basically in the position to accelerate forwards at the moment you let down the handbrake, so you can’t roll back. (My dad taught me this once in San Francisco, but I always thought of it as ‘cheating’!) That’s a really good question about UK-made cars, I bet you’re right!

  2. Julian says:

    What is a “step-on footbrake”?

    • vocalised says:

      I guess the fact that you’re asking confirms Stephanie’s hypothesis. It’s like a hand brake except you step on it to engage it. Here’s a picture of one: http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4107/4842198838_e9d6f9fdf5_b.jpg

      • Carly says:

        We have both a hand break and step on foot brake, which we just call in a ‘foot brake’

      • Carly says:

        We have a ‘step on foot brake’ on every car in the uk, not sure why we wouldnt, we just call them foot brakes.

      • vocalised says:

        Every car of course has the usual foot break, but in the US there are emergency brakes that do what the hand brake does but are activated by the foot instead of the hand. That’s what I meant; I don’t know what the right terminology for that is. 🙂

      • carly says:

        That makes sense, maybe it’s because the cars are manual, that would make it 4 pedals which would make it harder/impossible to do certain things like stopping and starting on steep land, having to use the break as well as holding the clutch and having your foot on the gas ready to go.

  3. Nice post. I practically failed getting a permit to drive university-owned vehicles in South Africa b/c I was leaving the clutch in too much. (When I lived in Edinburgh, I didn’t drive, just played chicken with double-decker buses on my mountain bike…).

    • vocalised says:

      Thanks for your comment, that’s really interesting! Yeah, the cycling situation in the center of Edinburgh is pretty awful. And what gets me is how few cyclists wear helmets, despite that! PSA, world: wear a bike helmet! 🙂

  4. The thing is good drivers, especially ones who have been driving for a considerable time can pick up bad habits. So yes its a good idea to have refresher course every-once in a while maybe?

  5. Duck2Water says:

    It’d be a good idea I think to make it compulsory for drivers to take courses like PassPlus and to make them only valid for 10 years or so, so you’d have to go back and do a refresher after that limit is up.

  6. Hit the nail on the head! Even if you past your drivers test 10 years ago, does not mean you are still prepared for the roads today! Students learning today actually are more prepared than those back then!

    With stricter regulations and difficult exams to pass, it would totally make sense for older learners to take top up classes!

  7. Passing on 20 hours of driving lessons is a great achievement, well done. Thing is after passing your test everyone believes their the worlds best driver. Refresher lessons will benefit everyone.

  8. wow good information every good driver need these information

  9. if you want to make good driver then yo need these information

  10. good for people who live there,by the way thank you for share these informtion to us.

  11. I love your post.

    You know some people make the mistake of making a 3 point turn whenever they want to regardless of the traffic conditions. I see a lot of inexperienced drivers stop traffic just to make that turn. It does irritate a lot of road users.


  12. Paul Confer says:

    Thanks. Very helpful for a US only driver…for now. I will be travelling to Manchester and Crewe in April. Do you know of any driving lessons I can take in the UK. I will follow your 5 tips and I am also looking for a brief lesson once I am in the UK.

    • vocalised says:

      It depends entirely on what town you’re in. I can only speak for my driving instructor in Edinburgh, who was excellent, but it sounds like you won’t be near Edinburgh. I’m sure if you look around online you’ll be able to find someone reputable in Manchester or Crewe. Good luck!

  13. Excellent blog.. We work with drivers from overseas all the time and even though they are great drivers there are often a lot of faults to rectify along with some confidence issues.
    Great read!!

  14. Many many thanks to you for writing this amazing post.

  15. Hello! I simply want to give you a huge thumbs up for your excellent info.

  16. Absolutely great to get your licence after 20 hours of lessons.New learners downunder have to take 120 hours of driving lessons just to qualify for the driving test and it’s not cheap either.
    Have a great day!

    • vocalised says:

      Thanks! Although keep in mind that I was already an experienced driver in the United States. (Hence this blog post, which is perhaps more about unlearning bad habits than learning how to drive.)

  17. vocalised says:

    Hey everyone, check this out! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-30249249 “Three-point turn may be dropped from UK driving test,” etc.!

  18. kylemarian says:

    Hi! I’m currently living in Edinburgh and have a US license but wanted to take driving courses to be more comfortable on the roads here. Was hoping to drive around Scotland a bit. Can you suggest an instructor in Edinburgh?

    • vocalised says:

      Yes, I can! His name is Paul and his email address is Paul.Johnstone {at} CaledonianLDT {dot} com. He’s the best! Happy driving!

  19. shiresdrivingschool says:

    Thank you for this post, I’ve helped a few non-UK drivers through their driving test and it’s good to see more comments from someone who has gone through the driving lessons to get through the test.

    Hope the driving is still going well 🙂


  20. Razeb Hasan says:

    Nice post. Most of my students take many lessons to pass the test. driving lessons Sydney

  21. Pingback: After passing the Life in the UK test | vocalized/vocalised

  22. I am taking my driving lessons with Alpha and Omega Driving School. This information will help a lot. Thanks! 

  23. John Carter says:

    Found your blog. Its really nice on driving courses in Rugby. I appreciate your article. Its important to get quality driving lesson to learn driving properly. So thanks for sharing all that important information.

  24. Roger says:

    I agree with this! I think the best driver is someone who has driven in multiple countries too! Nice post 🙂

  25. This Is Very Useful Article On Driving School,Thanks.

  26. explore says:

    amazing article for driving lessons . this article is very use full or help full for us thank you sir. Driving Lessons in Manor Park

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