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On the Road - City Driving

National Accident Helpline’s Start Safe, Stay Safe campaign takes a look at the key challenges of city driving faced by new or young drivers, complete with tips for overcoming them.

Driving in the city can sometimes feel like a game of Tetris, with vehicles slotting into tight spaces and sticking strictly within the appropriate lanes. There are always new challenges to conquer, each one being unpredictable and risky, if not handled correctly. Unlike driving in rural or residential areas, city driving can involve stand-still traffic, crowds of pedestrians, construction work, road closures and numerous intersections, junctions and roundabouts of all shapes and sizes. In fact, latest government statistics found that over 60,000 reported road accidents occurred on roundabouts, crossroads, and staggered or T-junctions on built-up roads in 2013. [1]

That’s not to say you should avoid driving in busy city areas, but failing to understand the challenges of city driving can be risky.

Four key things to watch out for in the city

1. Pedestrians and other road users: There are a lot of pedestrians in cities, along with many other road users, from cyclists to hefty trucks. With so many people on the road, it can make driving a little unpredictable, and it’s important to not only be mindful of your driving, but to be vigilant of others and their actions. The key thing to remember is to expect the unexpected.

2. Road signs: These are essential in guiding and controlling road users’ behaviour so that our roads are as safe as possible for everyone. Pay close attention to them as road signs can inform you of road closures, speed limits, upcoming junctions or roundabouts and more. You’ll see information painted onto the roads themselves too, and this can be particularly important for understanding which lane you should be in – so keep your eyes peeled!

3. Types of junctions: There are many different kinds of junctions to look out for including crossroads, T-junctions and staggered junctions. You’ll remember these from your driving lessons but here’s a quick overview:

Staggered crossroads

Crossroads: Crossroads are simply where two or more road “cross” each other and form an intersection.

Staggered junctions: These are where a minor road meets a major road but at a slight angle or short distance as opposed to directly opposite which you’d find in typical crossroads.

T-junctions: “T-junctions” or “three-way junctions” resemble the shape of a “T” and describe a road that meets another at a right angle without crossing it.

4. Roundabouts: The mighty roundabout can be quite confusing and challenging for new drivers as there’s a lot to take in. In the UK, traffic flows in a clockwise direction around roundabouts, and they are essential for traffic control where a number of roads merge and cross. Having them in place helps regulate flow in built-up areas.

History Corner

first roundabout

Did you know that the first roundabout in the UK was built in 1909 by town architects Barry Parker and Raymond Unwin?[2] It resides in Letchworth Garden City and is hidden away in lush tree-lined streets.

While we may seem like a country that loves its roundabouts, we can’t take credit for the concept. Some say it came from the US and others refer to the Étoile in Paris, designed by Eugène Hénard.[3] That being said, British engineer Frank Blackmore developed the offside priority rule at roundabouts and subsequently invented the mini roundabout in the 1960s. [4]

In 2009 the UK gained its very first rotary junction, and in today we have an estimated 10,000 roundabouts [5] – 300 of which are located in Milton Keynes!

City roundabouts

Last year, a £290 million project was announced to make 33 of London’s most notorious roundabouts less threatening to cyclists and pedestrians,[6] proving that as a car owner, you’re not alone when it comes to being intimidated by these circular constructions.

The main types of roundabouts you’d find in the city are standard, mini and double/multiple roundabouts. As a new driver, it’s good to familiarise yourself with these, so that you can identify them easily when driving along unfamiliar routes and build up your confidence. On all UK roundabouts the rule is to give way to vehicles approaching from the right.

Standard roundabouts: A standard roundabout has a kerbed central island and some may be operated by traffic lights. It typically has flared entries and exits, allowing vehicles to enter or leave the roundabout simultaneously on any given arm.

Mini roundabouts: Most local authorities use mini-roundabouts to address issues such as casualty reduction and speed reduction and they often have as domed, circular white road marking. All vehicles need to pass around the central marking with the exception of large vehicles as they cannot always do so due to their size.

Double/Multiple roundabouts: You may find two or more mini-roundabouts at an intersection on more complex junctions. In these cases, you need to regard each roundabout separately, and the same rules as a standard roundabout apply.


Did you take part in our Facebook game?

If you took part in our Facebook game, the animations above will be familiar to you but the key difference is, the cars in the animations above are following the rules and driving safely!

Here are the top answers we were looking for:

Standard roundabout: Many of you noticed that in our Facebook animation, the orange car indicated left when it should have indicated right when approaching the roundabout. It should have only indicated left after passing the second exit.

Similarly the red car should have indicated right as it approached the roundabout and not indicated left until after passing the second exit. It was also in the wrong lane.

Mini roundabouts: The red car indicated left on the roundabout but turned right. If the driver’s intention was to turn right, they should have indicated right as they approached the roundabout and not indicated left until after passing the second exit.

Double roundabout:The blue car indicated left when it should have indicated right.

Thanks for everyone who took part! If you missed it, like our Facebook page and keep checking back for more fun games and competitions.

Ask an expert

Harish Kumar

Harish Kumar has been a Pass Plus trainer since the scheme was introduced in 1997. He is also a highly experienced driving instructor, founding the Kumar School of Motoring over 20 years ago. We asked him some key questions that are likely to be at the forefront of every new driver’s mind when taking to the roads in the city.

What does the Pass Plus course actually cover?
It covers a range of topics such as driving safely in the city, at night and during bad weather conditions. In regards to city driving, an instructor will often take a new driver to their local high street where there is a strong focus on observation, judgement and awareness. Drivers are assessed throughout the modules and will need to reach the required standard to pass. It’s not compulsory but I would thoroughly recommend Pass Plus, as the practical sessions can help new road users to drive confidently and safely in the city.

Are there any driving distractions in the city that young drivers are guilty of?
What worries me is the number of young drivers wearing headphones and listening to music. You drown out all the outside noise, including someone sounding their horn at you to warn you of something serious. It’s not only drivers, but so many pedestrians have their headphones on, completely oblivious to what’s happening around them, so it’s even more important for drivers to be alert. Also, I find that young drivers are often distracted by what is going on around them such as new shops opening, people gathering together, event posters and so on. There’s lots to look at in the city but it’s very important for drivers to realise that a few seconds glancing off the road could make all the difference from driving safely to being at serious risk.

With so many cyclists in the city, what can new drivers do to ensure the safety of both road users?
Being aware of cycle lanes and respecting cyclists as road users is the most important advice I can give. I have seen some learners get annoyed with cyclists, but they have as much right to be on the road as other drivers. Give cyclists enough room, and if you’re turning left, let a cyclist go first.

Roundabouts can be confusing. Do many learners let the nerves get the better of them?
Yes, this is the point where many of my learners will stall their car because they are anxious. However, some of my learners tend to rush at roundabouts so it’s often me who has to take over and control the brakes! They often tell me that they feel the pressure to hurry because they are aware that other cars are lined up behind them, but drivers need to ensure their own safety first. You must approach roundabouts with caution and only carry on when you’re certain it’s safe.

What should a new driver do if they find themselves turning into a one-way street?
This rarely happens, in my experience, but it can be extremely dangerous if it does. I would advise drivers to park up immediately but safely. As the only car entering a one-way street, you’ll be easily noticed which is a good thing because other drivers will be more likely to stop and wait until you’ve turned around. It’s worthwhile saying that if you are approaching a one-way street, there will be a “no entry” road sign which is why it’s important to have a thorough understanding of The Highway Code.

What should a new driver do if other road users get frustrated with them?
Many drivers can get impatient with or without reason in busy cities, and new drivers shouldn’t take it to heart. Drivers need to remember that even experienced drivers get beeped at, but don’t let it anger or upset you. If at any time you feel threatened or intimidated, pull over where safe and allow the vehicle to get ahead.

City drivers often face congestion. Does it help if new drivers frequently change lanes to get to their destination faster?
No. I certainly wouldn’t advise this. You might think you’ll reach your destination sooner but it won’t really make much of a difference and the most important thing is to get to your destination safely. If for any reason you are changing lanes, make sure the lane you’re entering is actually the one you need – most city lanes are designed for specific actions such as “left turn only”.

If a new driver needs to drive into the city on a regular basis, should they buy a car that is more compact and easier to manoeuvre?
For a new driver this would help, and there are definitely advantages of owning a smaller car. They will typically use less fuel which means less pollution and therefore allows you to save money on road tax - they’re more economical all round. I recommend an electric hybrid car. Some youngsters point their noses up at them, maybe it doesn’t seem cool enough to them, but today’s green cars don’t lack in design, performance or practicality.

Tell us a not-so-obvious safety tip for regular city drivers
I think it’s wise to replace your cabin air filters, particularly if you drive into the city a lot, such as for work. Your car’s cabin air filter helps to clean the air coming through your car’s ventilation system, but there’s a lot of pollution and fumes around in the city so regular maintenance is key. How often you should do this will vary between manufacturers, so it’s important to refer to your car owner’s manual, which I always recommend keeping in a compartment within your car.

Finally, is there any exclusive industry news or scoop you can give us that could affect new drivers?
I attended a driving instructor’s conference earlier this year, and some key changes are underway to the practical driving test that will have a major impact on new drivers in the future. The DVSA would like to introduce driving with a navigation system on for twenty minutes or so. Also, they would like to test learners on bay parking, forwards and backwards, in busy supermarkets such as Tesco and Asda, and have already begun trialling this.

City 101: A Guide to City Driving

Before leaving:

Check traffic reports: This can be a good habit to get into as a new driver, as it helps you to plan your journey accordingly and change your route if needed. To help, there are many real-time traffic apps you can download onto your mobile phone such as Waze social and Beat the traffic. Just remember not to check them while you’re driving!

Turn on the navigation system: These are useful to all drivers, but especially if you’re a beginner and travelling into the city. Purchasing a satnav may sound costly, but there are many inexpensive devices available on the market, or alternatively, use the GPS on your mobile phone.

Avoid peak times: Cities can get really congested and chaotic during ’rush hour’, which are around 7:00-9:30am and 2:00-6:00pm on weekdays. It’s likely you’ll be doubling your journey time, and your stress levels, if you don’t plan around these busy periods. If it’s unavoidable, be extra cautious and observant, especially at intersections.

When driving:

Use waiting time wisely: If you’re stopped at traffic lights or held up in rush-hour, take that time to look ahead and identify the road layout that you’ll be approaching. Is it a junction? A roundabout? Checking road markings and watching out for road signs can help you to plan in advance so that you don’t have to make any last minute manoeuvres.

Watch out for others: Cities are full of pedestrians and other road users such as cyclists, couriers and trucks. They may not seem like a risk but, if they are relatively close to your vehicle, it’s important to anticipate their actions so that you’re prepared to act quickly should the situation change. Examples include sudden turns by cyclists or motorists manoeuvring between larger vehicles.

Obey speed limits: Speed limits are put in place for a reason. There are plenty of speed and traffic cams in place on city roads and, as a new driver, you don’t want to risk fines or accidents. It’s important to remember that you will lose your licence after picking up 6 or more penalty points within the first two years of acquiring your license – that’s just two speeding tickets.

Avoid sharp braking: There may be instances where you need to brake in an emergency, but if you’re braking sharply simply because there’s traffic ahead, you may not be giving the driver behind you enough time to react. Go at a steady speed and keep an eye on what’s happening around you.

Ask for directions: If you’re lost and you forgot our earlier advice of keeping a sat-nav in the car (we forgive you), there’s no reason why you can’t ask for directions from locals. Not knowing where you’re going can increase stress levels and lead to confusion over which lane you should be in or which junction to take – a real recipe for a city prang! Just remember to pull over to a safe area first.

Stay strong: You know how your favourite singer has to face the paparazzi? Well it comes with the territory, just like people honking horns or gesturing at you when you’re driving. It’s important not to get angry or upset, just take it in your stride and remember, it’s not worth sweating over the small stuff.


Judge wisely: If you’re not sure whether your car can fit within a certain space, it’s best to avoid it. As time goes on, you’ll get better at judging this, but meanwhile, you could invest in parking assist technology which can help you to park safely. Always remember to be considerate of other drivers and leave enough room for other parked cars to move off.

Keep spare change on you: This will come in handy should you need to park near a parking meter or in a car park. Also, keep an eye on parking restrictions and expect to see traffic wardens roaming around!

Keep valuable items hidden: What may just be a bag of sweaty gym clothes could seem like worthwhile goods to a thief so remember to hide away things like sports or shopping bags. You can never be too careful, and it’s important to be street smart by parking in well-lit areas. If you can, put valuables in the boot of your car beforehand so that you’re not attracting attention to thieves.

Remember the time of day: If you’ve reached your destination on a bright afternoon, bear in mind that you may be driving back in darker conditions, particularly in the winter when the days are shorter. Driving in the dark has its own set of challenges and as a new driver, you may want to avoid this until you’ve built up some more experience. Of course sometimes it’s unavoidable, and we’ll be putting together some helpful tips on driving in the dark soon, so watch this space!