In UK, you’re lucky if there’s a left to drive on
Buckle up. Comfortable? OK, you know we drive on the left in the UK. Driving on the “wrong” side isn’t the greatest challenge for an American. You get used to that quickly, even as you look longingly at the right lane for the first few days. What takes more getting used to is finding space to drive at all.
Sure, we have roads, it’s just that some of them aren’t big enough for cars. At least that’s what you’ll think when you first go for a ride deep in the countryside and are confronted with a joke road for toy cars. “Is this somebody’s driveway I’ve stumbled upon?” you’ll think, glancing nervously in the mirror, afraid there’ll be an impatient driver behind who’s clearly expecting you to sacrifice your car and yourself in a brave suicide mission into uncharted territory.
Except it isn’t uncharted. There’s a quaint road sign clearly indicating that a doubtless quaint village lies at the end of this thing which claims to be a road but which looks more like an open-topped tunnel, high hedges on either side.
Your fear is realised. There’s a car in the mirror and it beeps impatiently: What are you waiting for?
So your put your car in gear — almost everybody here has a manual transmission, I hope you know how to drive stick (also with the wrong hand, though handy if you’re a lefty) — hold your breath as if this will somehow make your car skinnier, and plunge in, trying to keep to the left, though there is no left. Or rather, it’s all left. And it’s all right. Your car is taking up the entire space in front of you. What if you should meet a car coming the other way? This is madness.
You creep ahead, but creeping won’t do, the man behind you has places to go, people or cows to meet, and besides, there’s no turning back now. So you speed up a little, but wait, what’s this ahead? A bend? What if there’s someone coming the other way? Didn’t whoever made this road plan for such eventualities?
It turns out they did. You breathe a sigh of relief as the road widens just enough to pull over slightly. A sign says it’s a passing place, in case you didn’t get the drift. A car coming the other way should be able to pass if its driver breathes in deeply, too.
You got lucky this time. Not all bends in the road come with wide spots. On many of them you’re expected to be able to look around the bend, which takes pretty good eyesight. Or you could try honking your horn, using echolocation like a bat.
What to do if you should meet a car coming the other way and there is no passing place? Well, somebody backs up until they get to one. Who does the backing up is almost a coin toss. The decision is usually made quickly — glaring may or may not help — and someone does the honors. Sorry to say, if it’s you, you don’t get to store up backing up karma for the next time it happens.
Eventually, you get to the quaint village, heave a sigh of relief, and call a rescue helicopter so you don’t have to go through that again.
Welcome to driving in the UK, where gas is “petrol” and really expensive, your trunk is a “boot” (and indeed a handy place to put muddy boots for walking in the country), and the hood is a “bonnet,” which, to be fair, is a kind of hood. It’s not all as bad as I’ve just described, but space really is at a premium; cars even have folding wing mirrors to grant a few precious extra inches for parking on the side of narrow roads.
There are genuinely fun times to be had behind the wheel. For example, the British love their roundabouts. These are intersections where you yield to whoever’s coming from your right. Depending on traffic flow and timing, you need never stop, and if you miss your exit you just go round again, though it’s not necessary to wave at the other drivers, even if it feels a bit like you’re on a merry-go-round. If you’re really lucky, your roundabout will lead straight into another one. Decisions, decisions.
Americans are allowed to drive here using their U.S. license for a year. After that, you have to stop spelling it with an “s” and get a UK licence, which involves taking what many regard as an inhumane test. I had to take it, and I’ll describe it in my next column.
Scott Munn is a former Tiffin resident who has lived in England for 21 years.