British vs. American Driving – Part 2

Part two of a little series about driving in the UK and preparing for The Test (the British driving test). For the first post, click here.

I am currently studying for the theory part of The Test, since my driving lessons were put on hold in the summer due to my pending visa application. Since I didn’t want to give the government any more money, I have succeeded in finding many of the relevant theory prep documents free online or borrowed from friends. The Highway Code is ‘essential reading for everyone’ apparently so I started with that. It quickly proved to be a barrel of laughs and confusion because of the heavy use of jargon and (unintentional, we presume) deadpan humour. Hence the idea to compare it with American driving customs for a blog post. The British rules will be italicised and American customs in plain font.

The Highway Code is laudable for many things, such as its consideration of the environment (don’t leave your engine running, how to save fuel etc) but it does exemplify a nanny state type document to me. For example:

  • We are advised (Rule 94) not to wear tinted glasses at night or in poor visibility. Because you won’t be able to see, unless you’re a gangster.
  • Rule 206 – Drive carefully and slowly when passing parked vehicles, especially ice cream vans; children are more interested in ice cream than traffic.
  • Seriously I’m not making this up.
'The Highway Code (UK) - first edition, 1931' by Mikey. Flickr CC-A.

‘The Highway Code (UK) – first edition, 1931’ by Mikey. Flickr CC-A.

The DVSA (Driver & Vehicles Standards Agency) Theory Test prep book also occasionally slips into a vaguely Southern twang:

  • Slow your vehicle right down. You better slow down, Bubba.
  • Kick down (apparently a feature of automatics enabling quick acceleration). Similar to a beat down. Also possibly the name of a football play as in “reverse eagle kick down” or something.

Rule 114 – You MUST NOT use any lights in a way which would dazzle or cause discomfort to other road users.

Americans always use their brights at night on country roads, otherwise you might miss the deer / racoon / possum / other wildlife trying to become roadkill. I really enjoyed the rather saucy use of dazzle throughout the Code and DVSA Theory Test book. Another good one, anti-dazzle, as in setting your rearview mirror to anti-dazzle if the car behind is dazzling, er, blinding you. Side note, wasn’t anti-dazzle that thing that you used to get out the plastic jewels you put in your hair with your BeDazzler when you were twelve?

Rule 123 – National speed limits. There is an entire flow chart/graph for speed limits depending on a) type of vehicle, and b) type of road.

Americans either a) look at the speed limit sign on the road or, b) ignore the speed limit sign on the road.

Rule 225 – Vehicles with flashing amber beacons. These warn of a slow moving or stationary vehicle or abnormal loads.

A beacon is something they have up north on lighthouses and such. Though Mississippi did have a lighthouse on its license plates for awhile. We are still trying to figure that out.

Rule 237 – Keep your vehicle well ventilated to avoid drowsiness.

Put the A/C on full blast, particularly in summer months, otherwise you might burn your butt on the seats which have been superheated by the sun.

Rule 18-30 – Pedestrian crossings. There are several types of pedestrian crossing: zebra, pelican, puffin and toucan. Most people will recognize a zebra crossing from the Beatles’ Abbey Road album cover photo.

Zebras can be viewed at Baton Rouge Zoo. We love pelicans because they are the Louisiana state bird. What’s a puffin? Toucans can also be found at the zoo. We don’t have pedestrians.

'Zebra Crossing?' by K.J. Payne. Flickr CC-A.

‘Zebra Crossing?’ by K.J. Payne. Flickr CC-A.

A few final comments. The catchphrase “mirrors – signal – manoeuvre” was really helpful, but I kept on hearing it in a French accent “ma-NUV-ruh”… I still need to ask somebody what a “milk float” is, all I know is it’s some kind of electric vehicle, presumably used to deliver milk. Road markings and surfaces are elevated to an art form in the UK. There are different colour reflective studs for the different lanes on motorways, different length white lane lines when approaching a roundabout or hazard, all manner of markings for pedestrian crossings, ‘rumble’ features to make you slow down, ‘box junctions’ to tell you not to stop in the middle of an intersection, tactile paving to let disabled pedestrians know there’s a crossing…and that’s not even getting started on the signage.

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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.