Monday, January 16, 2012

Advice for Americans about to attempt driving in the U.K.

I have to go to London next week on business, which will be my first time to visit the BG Group offices in Reading. Naturally I'm renting a car, which means that I will spend a week making full use of the UK's "roundabouts," which are a very highly efficient way to process as many drivers as possible through an intersection without having anybody have to slow down very much, without traffic lights, without stop signs -- just an outstanding bit of design. Of course this means that when I get back home I will spend the next six months feeling a strong urge to use VERY bad language every time I get to a four-way stop sign.

At any rate, having driven a lot in the U.K., I try to point out to Americans who are heading over there the two biggest adjustments for American drivers. Driving on the left, by the way, is not one of those two, because every American knows about that already.

#1. When you're coming up on roundabouts, it's absolutely critical to look at the sign that has the schematic diagram and decide where you're going to exit the roundabout. British drivers can always tell American drivers because they're the ones who have already made three complete circles around the roundabout and show no signs of exiting before completing a fourth. Once you are actually in the roundabout there are often NO SIGNS to tell you how to get out because they told you how to get out before you got in.

#2. There's no point in knowing whether you're going north, south, east or west, because there's no such thing as a sign saying "North M-1" or "East A-25". Instead, Britain's signpainters assume that you always know which small town is the next town you expect to go through, and that's what they put on the sign. Thus if you are driving through Wales and you are trying to get to the town of Llwwedatgyfa, which is ten miles from the roundabout you're about to enter and has a population of 20,000, but two miles before you get to Llwwedatgyfa there is a village called Wm in which there are three houses inhabited by five persons, six sheep and a cat, the sign will refer to Wm and not Llwwedatgyfa.

I remember having to make a different adjustment when I first started driving in Australia, down around Melbourne and the Snowy River country. I kept getting lost there because I would look on the map, and it would say I was supposed to head north on highway #51...but there were never any signs telling me which way to go for highway #51. Eventually with the help of the hotel concierge I realized that, on the map, highway #51 and its peers all also had names, such as, say, "Prince Edward Highway." And the signs all referred to the names, not the numbers. Once I knew that, suddenly it was easy to find my way.

Now that we have iPhones and GPS's, of course, all of this may be moot anyway...