Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Driving Mr. Crazy

It’s now been over a month since merely driving for a less than two week period in Scotland and I still feel like I’m the one driving abroad. Perhaps that’s five separate episodes now with narrower lanes, kerbs everywhere, smaller trucks/lorries, smaller average vehicle size and my beloved traffic circles that have enforced this change. Perhaps Scotland has the more polite drivers, but I encountered my share of emotionally challenged drivers there, just proportionally much fewer. A simple trip through New Jersey to Bayonne last week gave more than a pause for thought. Never accused of being a pussy-footer in the car, I’ve had my share of the little old ladies’ glares to see just what a maniac looks like. In my defence, 15 m.p.h. on a freeway ramp ought to be considered a punishable offence, Ma’am. I am indeed just like everyone else in adding 10 to whatever the speed limit sign says, but I am also the one actually going 15 in the school zone. So what’s really going on?
Americans just don’t drive fast on the freeway, that’s OK, it is a design based upon the Autobahn – the idea proffered at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, intended not to even have speed limits as is the persistent practice in Germany. No limit works there just fine even though to Americans, it seems just nuts- it isn’t. It is based on mutual trust of drivers’ abilities – something that is very hard to warm up to in the states, if I ever had it in the first place. The Autobahn and its madness seem at odds with the U.K. manner and manners of operating a motor vehicle, but again, it’s all about trust. I can’t seem to find that trust now that I am back.
To explain my difficulty readjusting to how I have driven for most of 40+ years is very simple. Americans are just arrogant and selfish bastards behind the wheel. America has evolved into a culture of the automobile at the expense of public transportation away from metropolitan centers. Even in smaller metropolitan regions such as Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, being an hour from Center City Philadelphia and one and one-half from the Big Apple by automobile (at $0.22 per gallon in the 1960’s) led to General Motors contributing dollars to the removal of passenger train service to these larger centers. Fifty years later there is talk of re-establishment of these services that if enactable and affordable will take another 20years to effect. So in our cars we remain.
Currently cell phones are the flashpoint of the driving discussion, but our beloved beverages, Big Macs and personal hygiene are only a small additional part of the picture. The concept of consideration for another driver or more importantly for traffic flow is just absent. Even foreign. Witness - 115 pound women driving nearly three ton Infinity Q45’s by themselves, self-appointed enforcers of the speed limit purposely blocking what was once defined as a “passing lane”, drivers oblivious to the flow of traffic behind or to the side of them as they jabber gossip and business while directly aside an 18-wheeler all creating absurdly dangerous situations on American highways. I encountered none of these for the first two miles of my 82 mile trip to Bayonne, NJ. But that part did involve the standard cut-off (because there was two car lengths space available in front of my car), the repetitive full throttle followed by full braking manoeuvre worthy of Formula One, the dead stop at the end of the merge lane from the on-ramp to the highway and the wholesale inability to keep a passenger vehicle somewhere within a lane greater than 150% the width of one’s vehicle (adjacent to another full-sized shoulder lane).
One thing narrower lanes on roads without shoulders and with brick kerbing does is teach you the dimensions of your vehicle and just where it is on a road. This is a massively overlooked responsibility of driving in the USA essential to driving for others as well as your self(ish bastard). Mercedes-Benz* introduced on its 2010 E-class model a warning system (already picked up by Ford!) to alert the driver that he or she is drifting out of one’s lane – alerting by a gentle vibration of the steering wheel and an appearance of an icon on the instrument panel in the shape of a steaming cup of coffee suggesting that one ought to find a Dunkin’ Donuts. PRONTO! There is also one to assist you braking for that vehicle you haven’t seen in front of you and for the blind spot as well. All for only a few thousand.
The incessant speeding up and hard braking in the US is probably the single thing that I am getting used to again. With Petrol at basically $10 per gallon, a driver thinks about how he uses fuel a helluva lot more than just limiting trips and carpooling. Clean, quiet diesels getting mid-40’s average fuel consumption makes a huge difference in costs as well as environmental impact (not that I am trying to save the planet, just be efficient and conserve). We have a few smug Prius drivers here in the US, but I’ve personally never seen a single one in the U.K. since its US release. That speaks volumes in its silence to me. The driving habits of having a big V-8 pickup as a personal transportation vehicle with all its torque and ‘pick-up’ include the most aggressive full throttle/full braking drive style in traffic, but this is prevalent in virtually all vehicles.
I love roundabouts (or traffic circles as they are known in New Jersey - perhaps the US state with the majority of these) and they do work. Well, they work if drivers are aware of their vehicle’s physical footprint and have a modest bit of respect and courtesy for fellow drivers. They are relatively easy to master, but part of that is the good and consistent signage that prepares you for your choices.

Another very positive aspect of roundabouts is what it doe s to accidents by how it controls traffic flow. So-called T-bone accidents are eliminated. There are no stop signs nor lights to hurry up and make, but that's what annoys Americans about them - the driver is unable to exercise his (or her) superiority. Everyone follows the same set of rules of the road because there is just no barging through a roundabout. Occasionally busy ones require flow lights, but they are few. If there are accidents they are glancing rather than head-on or T-bone.

It also might be surprising how trusting drivers are at speed on a two lane facing road (where there is no shoulder and a kerb is present) as there are just not a lot of episodes of brake slamming as one turns in front of you. That sort of behavior makes me wonder about the lane widths and shoulders so prominent in the USA lead to a false sense of security. Trust in Continental generally and U.K. drivers specifically has been rather easy for me to come by.

Hopefully I'll gain some in American drivers soon.

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