Driving in Britain, Part One
Driving is the same the world over, right?
No. For starters, the world can’t decide which side of the road it should drive on.
For motorists used to driving on the right hand side of the road and the left hand side of the car, hitting the tarmac in Britain can be a bit of an education. As it turns out, this is also true for those of us completely accustomed to the orientation of the Queen’s Highways.
Most of the world drives on the right. This includes Europe, North and South America, Russia, China, and a fair chunk of Africa. The roughly one-third of humanity who do drive on the correct side, however, are mostly the remnants of Old Blighty’s old Empire, plus the Japanese. And Thailand. And Indonesia. Yes, they have cars in Indonesia - who knew?
As a New Zealander recently relocated to the UK, I naturally assumed that the transition to British roads would be straightforward – but as we know, presumption is the Mother of All Things Going Wrong (there’s a slightly more rude version of that, but we can’t use it on the Internet).
Getting there with style and speed
British motorways are superb, if not for the faint-hearted. Six and eight lanes (that’s a lot, for a simple country boy from Down Under) of well-built, well-maintained modern carriageway, with good signage, sensible interchange design, and handily-spaced service centres, make for easy commuting between the (relatively) far reaches of Her Majesty’s Realm.
Crazy-arsed British drivers who appear behind you, seemingly from nowhere, flashing their lights to tell you to get out of the way, when you’re already doing 80mph in the middle lane, in torrential rain, with near zero visibility, make things interesting, however.
Why are you going that fast in those conditions in the first place, you ask? Well, because everyone else is, and if you don’t want to be rear-ended, it pays to conform.
That said, UK motorways have an etiquette all of their own, and people mostly stick to it. If someone needs to change lanes, you let them, indicating your willingness to so do with a double long flick on the headlights. They, in turn, will acknowledge your courtesy with a single flash of their hazard indicators, once they have settled into the lane ahead of you.
Quick as you can now
The nominal speed limit on motorways is 70mph; but the Brits generally regard this as a mere suggestion, and only ever adhere to it when the ever-present speed cameras are actually operating, which, in typically polite British fashion, is always advised, by flashing overhead neon signs. Sitting in the second-to-outside lane at 90mph, and being passed by someone in the fast lane as if you were standing still, is an everyday experience.
Overtaking on the inside is widely regarded as unseemly, and is not generally practiced – never mind that it’s illegal, the Brits steer away from that sort of behaviour because it isn’t polite. Exceptions are when you’re in the slowest lane because you’re about to take an exit, or when the ignorant prick in front of you doesn’t have the common decency to move aside without being asked. In the latter case it’s acceptable to communicate your disdain with a long blast on the horn, accompanied by the middle finger, whilst executing the inside passing maneuver (it also generally pays to put your foot to the boards immediately afterwards, and get some blacktop in between you and him, just in case he’s having a cross day. Remember, the British invented Road Rage. And the Bayonet Charge).
How to get off.....in a manner of speaking
On the subject of exit lanes, by the time you’re within about two miles of your off-ramp, it pays to be in the correct lane. If you’re not, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to break in, and it’ll be the next junction, and a double-back for you, matey. Don’t expect that your fellow road users will extend their typical British courtesy if you haven’t bothered to prepare in time – they’ve fought for their spot in the merging-out queue, and you ain’t having it. Exit lanes are exempt from motorway etiquette.
Also, don’t fall into the trap of thinking “I’ll just get past that last truck and trailer unit before I change into the exit lane” – it isn’t the last truck. There are another 100 in front of it, and yes, that IS just between you and the junction. Britain has a brilliant rail network, but most of it serves passengers; almost all this 65 million-plus nation’s freight goes by road. For a territory that's a wee bit smaller then New Zealand, about the same size as Louisiana, or about a quarter the size of Alberta, that's a lot of people, and a whole lotta freight trucks on the highways.
- Richard Prosser