Memoirs – Larry’s Observations on Driving in England

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First of all, let me wish all my blogging friends on here a very happy New Year. I hope it brings you much joy and no sorrow! I have so enjoyed reading all your blogs and sharing in your lives and hope to continue to do so through 2014. Thank you to any new followers and welcome :)

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Larry has been with me in England for nearly six months now and he says he is still learning. This month’s observation is all about our driving habits over here. Have a giggle…

‘Five Months in England – Still learning!

Driving in the UK remains somewhat of an uncertainty. I plan on taking driving lessons in the spring – that is, if they will let an old man of 69 years drive over here. Not that I don’t know how to drive a car – been doing that for half a century now! No, it’s this business of having the car on the wrong side of me and the gear shift on the wrong side of me and the road on the wrong side of me…. Well, you get the picture. It’s a bit like trying to read a book by viewing it in a mirror. Seems simple enough to decipher a sentence or two as a party trick, but imagine having to read the entire book that way, and in heavy traffic. I just need a bit of practice to gain some confidence, and a driving lesson or two seems the safest way to proceed. Might even be a nice break for the driving instructor, not having to worry about a gum chewing 16 year-old slamming on the brakes every 100 yards to answer a text from their friends. Hopefully I’ll get an instructor who can adjust to my Tennessee vocabulary, such as ‘rite thar’, which means ‘look whar my finger’s pointin’.

Having a senior citizen’s pass to ride the bus for free makes driving a luxury rather than a necessity. But that isn’t the point. I see it as a challenge, and I’m still up for a challenge even at my age. Learning the ‘rules of the road’ in the UK, albeit substantially different from those in America, is not the challenging part. I recall my 7th grade English grammar teacher explaining to a group of 13 year-olds that it would take us two weeks to learn the rules of proper English grammar, followed by another 16 weeks to understand all the exceptions. The exceptions were the interesting bit – so it appears to be with driving in the UK. Take, for example, a leisurely drive through a suburban area of a southeastern English town. In England we are supposed to drive on the left side of the road. Simple enough, but here come the exceptions. At least half the cars in the UK are parked in the road (they have no other choice), some partly on the curb and some completely in the road blocking the left lane entirely. So if you’re trying to drive on that road what do you do? You toss the rulebook out the window and improvise. You drive on the right lane (natural for me) until you get around the obstacle. Unless….. There’s a car coming toward you in the right lane. That means waiting until he has passed, and then moving into the right lane. Unless….. You think you may have ‘just enough time’ to swerve around the car blocking your lane and get back in your lane before the oncoming vehicle arrives. This is where it gets interesting. Different drivers have different perceptions of how much is ‘just enough time’. City bus drivers seem to be experts at this little game of “chicken”, having played it once every 3 minutes throughout their career as a bus driver, based on my 5 months of observations.

I used to think that most of the traffic congestion in America, caused primarily by 4-way stop signs, was successfully eliminated in the UK by building roundabouts. These ingenious inventions keep the traffic moving because it is much easier to determine whose turn it is to safely proceed through the intersection, i.e., you don’t go through the intersection – you go around it (and each other if there’s sufficient space). However, I have since discovered that whatever time savings the roundabouts offer is cancelled out by the time spent sitting behind parked cars blocking the left lane, where ‘whose turn it is’ depends on people’s perception of ‘just enough time’. How big the oncoming vehicle happens to be is also worth considering, with city busses getting preferential treatment from most motorists.

Out on the motorways (highways) things get a bit more dicey at much higher speeds. Motorways in the UK are usually a welcome relief from the relatively narrow (curb to curb) streets in and around towns. Motorways may be wide enough (using the entire paved surface) for three car widths, sometimes wider still. Thus driving in the left lane offers some new options. If trapped behind a slow moving lorry (truck), some drivers wait until there is sufficient space in the right lane to pass the lorry before the next oncoming vehicle arrives. This is the familiar custom on American highways. In either country success also depends on how much horsepower you have under the hood (excuse me, bonnet). But in the UK you may choose to go down the middle, passing the lorry on its right side but staying sufficiently out of the right lane that the oncoming vehicle can comfortably (or uncomfortably) go whizzing by. This is an interesting thing to watch – a lorry at 60 mph being passed simultaneously by a BMW going 75 mph in the same direction and a Fiat coming at 70 mph in the opposite direction. Definitely not for the faint of heart!! Other options too complicated to describe here must surely be available when the motorway offers multiple lanes in each direction.

To sum up then, the art of driving in the UK requires unique skill and experience in making the fullest possible use of any portion of the roadway that becomes available at any moment, with the ability to execute split-second timing being the thing that separates the experts from the novices. I am wondering if I have enough years left (and can purchase enough insurance) to adequately master this art form. One thing is certain however. For those entrepreneurs in the U.S. who collect $100 every time they tow away a car found illegally parked in the streets of American suburbia – come to the UK. You will all be millionaires in six months.’

Oma

9 thoughts on “Memoirs – Larry’s Observations on Driving in England

  1. Whenever I visit a foreign country, I don’t drive but take taxis or public transportation. This sounds awfully scary to me, and having driven a car for most of my life in the US, I cannot even imagine what it must be like. A right-hand turn is like a left-hand turn here, for example. I would be petrified. I enjoyed reading about it, though. Fascinating! You’re a good writer, Larry.

    • Thanks D-Jan. Yes, he does write in an amusing way, doesn’t he. I know he is finding our systems scary, what with all the weaving about in the traffic. However, so many of our houses were built before people had cars and that isn’t going to change so we just have to adapt to it. In return, I was amazed at how empty the roads in America are, compared to ours.

  2. I fully understand your difficulty in driving in the UK. One’s mind gets so used to driving after decades in a ‘set’ pattern and having to think about it in the ‘opposite’ way takes courage and skill.
    I’m surprised you never commented on the UK’s ’roundabout’ traffic islands. I know that when a friend of ours came to visit from Alabama he was often nervous and confused when encountering one of these roundabouts. And I didn’t blame him! They often give plenty of trouble to the natives of this land!
    Hope you get through this new learning curve without mishap. And a good New Year to all.

    • Larry does find the roundabouts confusing. The rule book has changed since I learned, as well. When I learned to drive, back in 1971, the left-hand lane on a roundabout was for turning left or going straight on and the right-hand lane was for turning right only. These days that is not always the case, so it seems. Now, with so many of the roundabouts off-set in the roads, it is sometimes correct to be in the right-hand lane when turning right and when going straight on. It’s no wonder it gets confusing. However, it is infinitely better, in my opinion, to have the roundabouts. Having experienced the roads in America, I would be very annoyed to have to keep waiting at all the intersections. Some of them take so long for the lights to change, that there is almost time to read a chapter of one’s book before moving forward. That doesn’t happen here because the roundabouts keep the traffic flowing. In peak times we have to wait a little, but never as bad as at the intersections over there.

  3. I always enjoy Larry’s contributions. We thought about driving in Ireland when we were there in 2007, but we decided not to, and were glad of our decision; people were just too carefree on the roads.

  4. At 57, and with a perfect driving record, I have no interest whatsoever in driving in the UK. I can hardly cross the street there without getting run over. Sometimes by very large busses. You’re very brave! And good luck!

  5. Oh my! You’re a brave man, Larry, even to contemplate this. It sounds nerve wracking…

    Happy New Year to Star and Larry — and watch out for those roundabouts!

  6. We drive on the same side of the road down here in Aus and also have roundabouts BUT I’ve never been so frazzled in all my life as when driving in the UK. Driving habits certainly have changed there in the past 40 years!

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