Monday, October 10, 2005

Drive on the left!

The title is taken from the statement my husband always makes when he first gets in the rental car at Heathrow after 11 hours of flying (overnight), a few more hours in the airports, and not having driven in the UK for 6-12 months. It is not a reassuring statement.

I am learning to drive here, to no-one's surprise I'm sure. When I tell (US)people that I find it difficult to drive here, they usually say something to the effect that it must be hard to drive on the other side of the road.

But that's not where the difficulty lies. After all, in Sweden they switched from driving on the left to the right all at once. With the driver's side of the car on the right and the other vehicles on the road, driving on the left isn't the hard part.

What's hard is everything else. England is an ancient land. Roads were built long before the advent of motorcars, or even horses and wagons being as numerous as cars are today. Needless to say, there isn't a lot of room for cars, and as a consequence, roads are narrow and cars are parked everywhere. In some cases, cars are parked partway up on the sidewalk(pavement). Frequently as you're driving, you'll come across places where only one car can fit through. So one of the big challenges is to figure out whether or not 2 cars can fit and if not, who goes first when facing an approaching car. There is a protocol whereby you flash your headlights (English cars have a switch that does this even when the headlights are off) at someone whom you're letting go through, and that person then waves at you. All this while weaving around all the parked vehicles, plus more below...

Another difficulty is watching the cyclists, especially the children. There are more people on bicycles here, and not a lot of room for them on the roads (see above). Many cyclists don't wear helmets here, which I find amazing, but I guess head protection has been drilled into me.

And then there are the pedestrians. There are designated pedestrian crossings where you must stop, and some where you need not (there are flashing yellow lamps in the ones where you have to stop). But people cross anywhere and everywhere. The difference is that they don't expect you to stop like they do in California.

At intersections where there is no light, people pull right up to the edge. This is primarily due to visibility, but if you're cruising down the main road and someone pulls right up to the edge from a side street, it's very disconcerting. I still watch with great caution, fearing that they'll pull right out.

There are almost no stop signs here. I saw my first one yesterday and remarked on it, it was so unusual. Most unmarked intersections are set up for yielding, but the reality is you have to stop to see what's coming before you can safely proceed. The trickiest intersection is the ubiquitous roundabout (know as a rotary in the US). They're really not too bad, once you learn to watch to the right (traffic from the right has right-of-way) as you're appraoching the intersection. These roundabouts come in all sizes, sometimes in pairs (called a double mini roundabout). Just as I figured out how to negotiate roundabouts successfully without necessarily stopping, I encounter ... {ominous chord} ... traffic lighted roundabouts. Not only is there a light where you enter the roundabout, there are also lights on the roundabout itself! Oy. I've nearly run through a couple of those.

Lights. Yes, they are different here. The light goes from red, to a combination of red and amber (yellow in US), to green, then amber, then red again. But there are more combinations, like arrows. The other day I was driving, approaching an intersection, and the light was red, except there was a green arrow pointing straight up. Uhhhhhh, the cars ahead of me are continuing, so I guess I can go if I'm going straight (or up)...

And then there are the lanes. Years ago, my husband and I were on a drive, and he decided he wanted to take me to a nice country pub called the Nettleton Arms in the village of Nettleton. It had been years since he'd been there, so he wasn't sure of the location. He turned down a lane, only wide enough for one car and bounded by hedgerows, and not really paved. I was certain he had turned into someone's farm track, when a few minutes later, there was the pub. (As an aside, a few years later we tried to go back there, and drove to where it used to be, and there was the village, but no pub. Eventually we decided someone must have turned it into a private residence.) These lanes are not uncommon when driving to small villages. What you have to do if you encounter a car going the opposite direction is decide who backs up to the nearest widening in the lane (these occur periodically, sometimes being a break in the hedgerow where there really is a farm track, sometimes truly a wider spot in the hedgerow). If you're going around a bend, you honk to let a potential traveller in the opposite direction know you're coming. Hopefully they'll do the same. I prefer driving the lanes at night, since the headlights make it clearer that you are there and so is the other vehicle.

Oh yes, and the shift is on the left side.

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