As you may know, I’ve been driving here for the last month and I thought I’d share some of the highlights of the English driving experience with you. That driving on the other (I don’t say "wrong") side of the road is an experience in itself goes without saying, so I’ll proceed to other points:
- The steering wheel is on the left side of the car and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked up to the car on the right side out of habit; once I even opened the door before noticing there was no steering wheel there.
- There is no "right turn on red" in England.
- To stop traffic, the traffic lights turn from green to yellow then to red. To start traffic, they go from red to red + yellow to green. Many drivers hit the gas when the red + yellow appears.
- Outside of downtown areas where blocks meet at right angles, round-abouts, or traffic circles, are far more common than standard intersections. There’s one, for example, beneath almost every major highway interchange. The traffic in the circle has the right-of-way but there’s also a specific etiquette with regard to the use of turn signals when in the circle to let everyone know where you’re going. They’re quite a bit of fun, but on a long trip, negotiating dozens and dozens of round-abouts does get a bit tiring.
- Speed limits, when they are posted, are often posted on signs the size of a dinner plate, so they’re easy to miss. The rule of thumb is that, if a street has lamp posts, the speed limit is 30 mph. Yes, it’s miles per hour, not kilometers per hour here. Speed cameras, fixed and mobile, are everywhere. I know this because my GPS satellite navigation system comes with a database of them and I can’t believe how often it warns me.
- The National Speed Limit for motorways (interstates) is 70 mph but people frequently drive 85 and 90. Mix this in with trucks that have governors that limit them to 55 and little old ladies (and me) doing 60, and you have a volatile mix.
- Dual carriageways (four-lane divided highways) have speed limits of 60 and 70 mph but are frequently bisected by streets at stop lights or round-abouts. Add the speeders and you have people doing 85-90 mph on roads that are not limited access, like a motorway is. Scary indeed.
- Other drivers are very generous here about letting you change lanes or merge in, which is very commendable. The "zipper merge" is practically a national pastime.
- I honestly think a lot of drivers here drive slowly to conserve fuel. Yes, there are speed cameras but my observation is that drivers on city streets stick to the speed limit or less. Even on the motorways, I bet those folks driving 60 are counting their fuel savings. It doesn’t take too many $140 fill-ups to get the message. I wonder how soon this will catch on in the U.S.?
- In a country with very old towns never designed for cars, parking is a national sport. Commercial areas like city centers have multi-story car parks (garages) but when it comes to parking the car at home in the urban setting, well, let’s just say I’ve seen a lot of "imaginative use of space". I’m very lucky that I have a reserved parking space at my apartment building (though that doesn’t always keep it open for me).
- Pedestrians do not have the right of way by law as they do in the U.S. Crossing the street at a crosswalk means waiting until all the traffic has passed, traffic stops because the light up ahead has them backed up, or very occasionally encountering someone who stops for you. There are multiple types of crosswalks (Pelican, Toucan, Zebra) denoted by road markings and special lights. Only one, the Zebra, requires drivers to stop for pedestrians. My driving instructor frowned on slowing for pedestrians as it "just encourages them to cross". If you come to visit, consider yourself warned!
That’s it for now. More gleanings from my driving escapades will appear later.