This is the question I get asked more than any other. Is it hard? Is it scary? I didn’t really think about it in those terms, the first time I had to drive in Europe, because Gerry doesn’t drive (yet), so I really had no choice.
When I answer this question, I say: No, it’s not hard at all—because everyone else is driving on the left too. It’s easy to just follow the crowd. You adjust very quickly, I’ve found. However, at the end of the day don’t be surprised if you are more exhausted than you expected to be. Why? You are driving an unfamiliar car, in an unfamiliar place (and you want to look!), and your concentration is fierce, because you’re driving on the left side. You’ll be tired, trust me.
That said, I’ve been thinking about advice for American drivers who might want to rent a car in Ireland.
- Rent something small. It will be easier for you.
- How many times will you go to the door on the left side of the car before you figure out the driver sits on the right? I still do it occasionally.
- Make sure your seat is comfortable and your mirrors adjusted before you leave the rental car lot. (I have actually had to return a car before I ever left, due to the difficulty with shifting gears and the way the seat was situated.) Familiarize yourself with everything you’ll need: wipers, lights, and so on. Where the gas tank is.
- Most of the cars being rented in Ireland these days utilize auto stop-start technology, so, no, your car didn’t die while you were stopped at that red light. When you take your foot off the brake, the engine will start right up!
- Yes, you’ll be changing gears or shifting with your left hand. Everything is flipped. You’ll get used to it.
- Remember that driving lanes and streets are noticeably narrower than what you are used to (thus the recommendation to choose a small car).
- Place you are most likely to drift back to the wrong side: in the parking lot, leaving the parking lot. So pay attention.
- Be extra cautious at first. It’s OK, they’re used to tourists. Remember that a left turn in Ireland is like a right turn in the States: easy peasy. Those Irish right turns, though, you’re gonna have to wait for the light.
- Don’t feel rushed, especially when parking and leaving parking. Watch the locals! Everything’s tight here, so there will be lots of times when you’re going to have to wait for someone or they’re going to have to wait for you. When people are parked on both sides of the road so there’s only room for one car down the middle, look ahead: there may be someone waiting for you to come through. This is how it works.
- Be courteous, pull over if you’re slowing a lot of folks down on a two-lane road with no passing opportunities.
- Distances are measured in kilometers, not miles (5 miles = 8 kilometers). Speed-limit signs and your speedometer are too (if the speed limit is marked 100km, that’s 62mph). Sometimes a narrow, winding road is marked for a pretty fast speed; do not feel that you must drive that fast! Just remember the “be courteous” rule.
- Always use your turn signals.
- Take a little practice run. From the Dublin Airport, get on the M-1 and head north to Swords, then get off at the R-106 and head east to Malahide. You can follow the R-106 along the coast back toward Dublin. There are plenty of places to pull over and enjoy the sea view. Once you’ve had this practice, turn on your GPS when you’re ready to get started.
- Freeways (the M- roads, which are usually numbered with single digits) will be easiest. They’re divided, like American interstates, with controlled on- and off-ramps. After that, use the highways (N-roads, double digits). But sooner or later you’re going to find yourself on R-roads (triple digits), which is when things get exciting.
- When driving on the freeway, slow traffic should be in the left (outer) lanes; you’ll pass on the right. Again, everything is flipped from what you’re used to.
- In the States we see the broken yellow line down the center of a road, with a solid yellow line marking the the edge—in Ireland, this is opposite (though the center line will be broken if you can pass). Very often you will see a road with the line painted down the center, even though you could swear that’s a one-lane road. You’re not mistaken: two cars probably can’t pass side by side without one or both of them dropping onto the shoulder. They’re just playin’ wit’ yer head. But don’t feel you have to drive all squished up to the left—go ahead and take your half in the middle unless there’s a car coming from the opposite direction. 🙂
- If you want to look at something or if you’re confused, pull over.
- No false pride: you’re gonna bump the left curb sometimes. Can’t be helped.
- Signage is pretty good for getting places (but not for street signs; they are not where you expect them to be). GPS is helpful, but our Garmin has gotten it wrong once or twice. So listen to the GPS but don’t turn off your brain; watch the signs. (Here’s an overview of what Irish signage looks like.)
- It doesn’t hurt to have a paper map book on hand either.
- There will be very clear signage as you approach the roundabout, so LOOK AT IT. Your GPS will say “take second exit [from the roundabout]” but what this really means is “go straight through.” You’ll see. If you miss your exit, just go around again. Drive in the inner lane until you’re ready to exit, then move left.
- As with American signage, it helps to know the next town along your route when you are reading signs on the fly. Thus an alert navigator is helpful. 🙂
- Most importantly at roundabouts, pause and look right and be prepared to yield. Traffic is coming from the right.
- Don’t be misled by those triangles painted on the street. They are not arrows, they are not “pointing the way.” (Don’t follow them!) They are inverted. Triangles mean YIELD. There is lots of yielding in Ireland.
- In a large city like Dublin, you’ll encounter cab and bus lanes when there are two or more lanes headed the same direction. These will be on the left, clearly marked. They are reserved for cabs and buses; you may only drive in them when you need to make a left turn.
- Take frequent breaks when traveling cross country. Pull over in a lay-by or in the next village, and get out and stretch your legs. Better yet, have a cup of tea before you get back to driving.
The most important thing is to relax, take it easy, and don’t get in a rush. You’ll be fine. Have a good time. 🙂