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By Brian Kennedy, PhD
Being the worldly car people you are, you LA Car readers might from time to time drive in foreign lands, like, say the UK. Should you find yourself there, I thought it might be good to give you some hard-won advice so that your travels, whether they be in a vintage MG or a modern Vauxhall, will be successful and fun.
First, try to avoid the obvious and embarrassing mistake of walking up to the left side of your car and attempting to enter the driver’s seat there. You’ll find that it’s not there. It’s on the wrong side, the side that to you has always been the passenger’s side. No doubt, despite this advice, you’ll do this at least once. Hopefully, you’re traveling with a companion and can cover by pretending that you meant, all along, to open the door for him or her.
Next, repeat the following mantra every morning as soon as you get in the car: “Left, left; left, left, left.” Do it that way exactly, with the last three “lefts” kind of coming in a rush. This idea comes courtesy of a friend of mine named Andrea. She does it every time she gets in the car in the UK, and I tried I this spring when I was in Scotland. It’s simple, but it works to keep you on the side of the road that you need to be on. Which, of course, is the wrong side. At least, that’s what your instincts will tell you.
Third, please realize that the signs in the UK, though the British believe them to make perfect sense, don’t. Take for example the sign I saw with a red circle surrounding the number “20”. This means that the speed limit is 20. Said another way, it says, “You can go 20 here.” But here’s the tricky part. I also saw a sign that had a red circle surrounding the image of a bicycle.
Now logically, this should mean that what’s in the circle is allowed. Nope. That means no bikes are to be ridden here. A silly example, but try to make sense of it another way. Another example: when they want you to yield, they put a triangle on the road with the point facing you. Or maybe, it was the point facing away from you. Hmm. You know, I can’t remember which way around it was. No matter. It didn’t make any sense to me either way.
Fourth: try not to laugh too much when you see a really silly sign. It will distract you. For instance, “Don’t worry the sheep.” Really. Or “sleeping policeman ahead.” Huh? That’s a speed bump to you and me. Sometimes it says “Speed hump ahead.” Please don’t think that this means you need to DO something. Like hump. You’re driving, remember?
Fifth, realize that no matter how hard you try to do things right, you’re going to make mistakes. The worst times are two: in parking lots, when you’re sure to go the wrong way, and when you get to three-way intersections. You’ll find yourself blinded by the signs, the world rushing at you all at once. You’ll be in a blind panic and will be lucky not to drive straight into oncoming traffic.
If you do make a mistake, you’ll find other drivers honking at you, and you’ll find yourself saying things like, “Tourist here. Bastards. Don’t you realize that I’m saving your dead economy by spending my money on your overpriced petrol?”
Of course, when you’ve been there long enough to call gas “petrol” without feeling like a wanker, then you also know what “wanker” means, and realize that it’s not as bad as it sounds, and is used in everyday polite conversation.
Next, please know that your normal instinct when you’re not sure of what someone else is going to do, which is to look at the other driver, won’t work. You know in your head that the driver is on the right. You’ll look to the left seat because that’s where the driver has always been if you were raised in the non-right-driver world (which, of course, is nearly everywhere except where the British did their nasty colonial deeds). You can tell yourself “look to the right,” but when the panic moment comes, you’ll look to the other seat.
You’ll discover one of two things: that there appears to be no driver there. Or that the driver is reading a newspaper. Of course, that’s not the driver; that’s the passenger. But you won’t realize that. You’ll just say, “What the bloody hell are you doing?” Which is also British-speak. Congratulate yourself. You know how to swear properly in the country you’re visiting.
What are we up to? Seven? OK. Don’t, no matter what you do, bring any of this advice home. You’ll find, if you drive a lot over there, that when you get back, you’ll be cruising up your residential street going “Hey, what side am I supposed to be on?” It’s totally disorienting. “Right, right; right, right, right” is all I can say.
Eight. Pubs are cool. Drinking in them and attempting to drive is not. And the cops won’t take the “I’m a tourist” excuse as worth anything. Neither will the embassy bail your sorry ass out of jail. So just don’t do it.
One crucial piece of advice for you if you’re traveling with a companion. Develop an agreement that when she (or he) says “Stop!” you stop immediately and without questioning why she’s saying it. Of course, this means that the passenger/navigator can’t frivolously say “Stop!” (even without the exclamation mark). This is your “safe word,” and it us used only when you’re in imminent danger of making a mistake that’s going to end up costing you an insurance claim.
Speaking of which, don’t take the rental car (sorry, “car hire”) guy’s word for it that he doesn’t need to get his lazy British butt out to the lot to check over your car before signing off on it. You’ll end up getting hit with a charge for a rock chip that you didn’t put there. This will appear on your VISA bill three weeks later, when you’re already an expensive flight away from wherever the car happens to be. (Or just don’t rent from Europecar. Am I making this clear?)
Lists always have ten items, right? So here’s the last one: learn how roundabouts work before you go zooming into one, cross two lanes of traffic, have your seatmate tell you, “I could see the terrified faces of the passengers in the car you just cut off,” and have to laugh it off. But if you DO do this (and you probably will), then be ready with this excuse: “The best British drivers, Sir Stirling Moss comes to mind, always drive that way.”
And of course, if you make it home in one piece, be sure to send us and email with details of your adventure.