British vs American Driving – Part 1

I am preparing for the British driving test, or as I’m referring to it now, The Test. If you get the sense that it should be feared, well you wouldn’t be far off the mark. I learned how to drive over 10 years ago in the US. I completed a two-week driver’s ed course and passed my test in Louisiana. However since I am not a Commonwealth citizen, I have to take the British driving test because I’ve been here longer than a year. The Test entails, I’m told, a minimum of twenty driving lessons with a driving instructor to prepare, a theory test, a hazard perception test and the practical driving test. I reckon the whole endeavour of The Test will cost several hundred pounds depending on how many lessons I take. The Test (particularly the practical test) is so difficult that a lot of people never bother learning to drive or fail it multiple times. Getting your driving license is a rite of passage in America so it’s very unusual to meet adults here who can’t drive. However the public transport system is so good you can get away with it.

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Needless to say I’m not thrilled at going through this rigmarole, but it has had its funny moments. Mostly at the expense of the highly-regulated, jargon-laden, handholding apparatus that is the UK Highway Code. But before we go on a tour of that, first some general principles of British driving I’ve observed and/or been enlightened to by British people.

First, in the UK, as many of you know, they drive on the left – the opposite of continental Europe and pretty much every other country on the planet.[1] When discussing this with British folks, they – on principle – do not refer to countries who drive on the other side as driving “on the right” but as driving “on the wrong side”. I think there are historical reasons for the arrangement based on fighting on horseback, but I daresay that the majority of us will take being told we’re “wrong” in good spirit…

Second, people who drive automatic transmission cars are generally considered second-class citizens / sissies / loaded. I have witnessed many an instance of ribbing, teasing, skepticism and disbelief of automatic cars. Well that’s merely anecdotal evidence, you say, but actually, this phenomenon is all formalised (perpetuated?) in the licensing system.[2] If you pass your driving test in an automatic, you can then only drive an automatic. If you pass your test in a manual, you can then drive both a manual and an automatic. I know it makes sense, but honestly I don’t see what the fuss is all about. In the States you get your licence and can drive whatever car you like and you probably wouldn’t drive a manual if you didn’t know how. Automatics for the record now get better full economy than manuals.[3] The only real downside is that they are more expensive to buy in the UK (hence people who drive them being loaded).

Not really sure what's going on here. Roundabout in Swindon UK.

Not really sure what’s going on here – mini roundabouts plus a roundabout?? This is in Swindon UK. Credit- ‘Roundabout’ by born1945, Flickr CC-A license.

Third, roundabouts. There are lots of roundabouts. Traffic goes around them clockwise and I am still working out how the multi-lane ones work. British folks without fail will sing the praises of roundabouts and cannot believe it when I say that there were only two in a city I used to live in (Jackson, MS). Well one, because the other one was technically in another county.

I hope I haven’t offended anyone – don’t ask permission, ask forgiveness and all that. The next post will be a tour of the Highway Code and comparable American driving customs.

[1] http://www.worldstandards.eu/cars/list-of-left-driving-countries/ There are quite a few who do drive on the left but I got to 75 or so before realising that this list separately lists states and territories (e.g. Wales, Jersey, Scotland, Isle of Man, Northern Ireland) which are actually all part of the United Kingdom (which is also listed). Countries who do drive on the left are mainly former colonies of the British Empire, such as India.

[2] Driving an automatic only is termed a “restriction” on your license, cf. https://www.gov.uk/driving-licence-codes and https://www.gov.uk/driving-licence-categories

[3] According to my husband who did his PhD on car engines.

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