You'd think I would have picked a better time to decide to drive on the wrong (actually it was the right) side of the road than during my British driving test. Up to that point, I'd been doing all right. Needless to say I failed.
I'd been having driving lessons for about three months with a short, mustachioed man named Barry. I have a thing about the name Barry. I once worked for a short, mustachioed managing editor named Barry. He wasn't a bad man, not on purpose. He was just ineffectual and ball-less. Anyway, driving instructor Barry and I had what you might call a failure to communicate. He thought I was a worse driver than I was and I thought I was a better driver than I was. He once told me our next lesson would be 10 to 11. I thought he meant 10 minutes to 11 so when he rang the doorbell at 10 I wasn't ready. He went off grumpily and came back later.
I'd been driving fine since a week after I'd moved here. HTB had shown me how to shift with my left rather than my right hand. I had to remind myself to look over my left shoulder and to get in on the right side. But I'd negotiated the streets of Liverpool OK, aside from one or two incidents with buses. In New York I would have screamed and shot a bird at the drivers. Here in England, though, they use two fingers and in the heat of the moment I'd forget which two fingers.
Barry, knowing better, decided I needed to learn how to drive all over again. Three-point turns, emergency stops, reverse (parallel) parking, reversing round corners. He talked to me like I was 17. I actually disliked him intensely. Still, I needed him to get me through the test, the most nerve-wracking minutes in anyone's driving history. Here I was, with about 20 years of driving under my belt, nervous as hell about this man beside me scribbling away on his notepad. I failed the first time, but a few weeks later retook it and passed, though my reverse parking was a bit dodgy.
Having had all those driving lessons, I learned that there are things they don't teach you about driving in the UK. Following are a few tips.
First of all, the British seem obsessed with checking the mirror. So before you put your key in the ignition, put on your seatbelt and check your mirror. Then, check your mirror, look over your right shoulder, check the mirror again, then signal, then pull out into traffic. Coming up to a traffic light, check your mirror in case someone is following you too closely (although what you're supposed to do about it, I don't know). Check the mirror again as you accelerate. At a roundabout, check your mirror, then watch the oncoming traffic, then check your mirrors, etc.
So, Mirror, Signal, Maneuver (I can't spell it the British way). Very important.
Here's something else to remember: Me in the Middle. If I'm not in the middle, I'm on the wrong side.
I got my license before the laws changed, making the whole process even more nerve-wracking. The biggest difference, besides being on the opposite side of the road, between the U.S. and the UK is the size of the roads. In the U.S. they tend to be wider and straighter. In the UK cars are often parked on either side, turning a two-lane into one or one-and-a-half lanes. A certain finesse is required in negotiating these roads and knowing when to give way and when not to. Who legally must give way is rarely the issue. It's who is in a bigger hurry or is more polite.
Something else to know is when to flash one's lights. You flash your lights at oncoming cars to let them know you're letting them pass. They might flash back to say thank you. You flash your lights when you're behind a slowpoke on the motorway and you want to get past them NOW. You also may flash your lights if someone has pissed you off bigtime and you want to let them know without giving them two fingers (or maybe you do that too). And sometimes you flash at cars going in the opposite direction to let them know of the speed checks up ahead. None of this is on the driving test, by the way.
You also need to know your animals. There are pelican crossings and zebra crossings. These are pedestrian crossings. The pelicans have buttons that pedestrians push to change the traffic lights (eventually). The zebras just have flashing lights. As soon as a pedestrian steps onto the road, cars are supposed to stop in theory. In reality the zebras can be very dangerous as many drivers zoom through them, oblivious to the poor people they've very nearly killed. Also, don't expect pedestrians to walk five yards to the nearest pedestrian crossing when they can take their lives in their own hands by crossing where they feel like it. And when in London look out for American tourists who are always looking the wrong way (and you can include me in that category).
Roundabouts are rather clever ways of keeping the traffic flowing. Something I've learned the hard way is to always look at the car ahead of you rather than your stupid mirror or the oncoming traffic. You might think they're seeing the break and and are moving when they're not. Then you might actually hit them and they might sue you for tens of thousands of pounds, but hopefully you're insured. Hypothetically speaking, of course. Not that this ever happened to me (well, maybe just the once).
Having grown up in Florida next to one of the great elephant burial grounds for old people (St. Petersburg) and then living in Fort Myers, another elephant burial ground, imagine my surprise to find myself living in the British version. Like the senior citizens in Florida, the OAPs (old-age pensioners) in the UK can be a menace on the road. As in Florida, the old men always seem to wear hats or flat caps. Unlike Florida, they don't drive tanks. Instead, they opt for cheaper, smaller cars that can't go very fast. But, oh, can they make them move when they want to. One time I was caught behind an old dear in a green Mini (before Minis were trendy). I tried to pass but every time I made my move, she swerved to the right, blocking my way. Another time when my children were very young, I packed us all up to go to the supermarket to buy some essentials. It was raining. I was very, very tired. I waited patiently for a woman to back out of a parent with children spot. As I was about to pull into the spot, an old dear in a (you guessed it) green Mini swerved in and took my spot. In a rage, I got out of my car and ran up to hers whereupon I hit her window with my hand. I think I nearly gave her a heart attack. "This is a parent with child spot and I've been waiting for it," I spat at her. "Well, I'm handicapped," she replied, neatly stepping out of her car. I got back in my car (other drivers were honking at this point) and drove 20 minutes to another supermarket, got the essentials, got in the line to pay, whereupon another OAP, a man this time, cut in front of me. I started laughing because what else can you do?
Something the UK has introduced in previous years that has proved wildly profitable and unpopular is the speed camera. Now, some of these work and some don't. How do you know? Either you've already received your speeding ticket in the post or you watch the other cars. Do they suddenly brake and go at a snail's pace? They probably know something so you should do the same.
In some ways driving in the UK is easier. On the motorway, for instance, you know that you will always be passed on the right. Slower cars, for the most part, go in the left lane. Anticipating other drivers is easier. When I drive in the US, I get very nervous about being passed on the left, the right, anywhere really. It takes me about a day to get used to driving U.S.-style or UK-style usually.
Now back to that driving on the wrong side of the road. You might think I am tempted to do that all the time. I am not. I have done it about three times since I've lived here, one being during my test. The last time was about four years ago. I had the kids in the car and we'd been to a pub for lunch (but I didn't have an alcoholic drink). As I was coming round a curve, for some inexplicable reason I went over to the other lane. An old dear in a green Mini (no lie) was coming toward me. I pulled over quickly onto some grass that conveniently had planted itself there to save my ass. I took a deep breath, tried to figure out why the hell I'd done that, reassured the kids, and drove very carefully home.
Am I a good British driver? Well, I don't wear a hat or drive a green Mini, so I can't be that bad. Can I?