To celebrate my wife’s retirement, we decided to make our summer vacation very special. We traveled to the British Isles. I expected to learn more history, and to learn about British culture, but I never expected to garner insight applicable to life here in Washington County, especially by observing a day-to-day activity like driving.
Driving a car there is obviously different. The driver sits on the right hand side of the car. The car is driven on the “wrong” side of the road. Traffic lights sequence from red-to-amber-to-green. Roads are generally narrower. Road markings are quite different. The names of roads, if posted, are not easy to read.
The car models being driven are fairly familiar. There are Toyotas, Mercedes, BMWs and Fords. General Motors vehicles are quite common, but are sold under the name Vauxhall. There were very few pickups, though.
Speed limits are posted in miles per hour, not kilometers per hour. So that is good.
Traffic cameras, especially in cities, are everywhere and aren’t just for speeding. Cameras monitor violations of bus loading zones; infractions on driving in bus/cab lanes; running red lights; and speeding. The presence of all these cameras made me feel a bit uneasy.
And of course, there are traffic circles. Traffic circles, also known as rotaries or round-a-bouts, are everywhere. It isn’t just that they are everywhere, but the car has to be driven through them clockwise, rather than counter-clockwise. Entry is usually controlled only by yield signs, but occasionally one is controlled by traffic signals. Most have two or three lanes going around them. A driver has to be very mindful of other cars entering the rotary and changing lanes.
One would assume that with all of these challenges, driving in this foreign country would be a nightmare. However, I found just the opposite. British drivers were very courteous. Turning signals were used for the slightest change in direction. There was never a horn blast from a frustrated, angry driver. The posted speed limit was honored. I never witnessed any car running a red light. And most noticeable to me was that on the carriageways, i.e., those roads with two or more lanes moving in the same direction, the drivers are in a race. It isn’t a race to get “there” first. It is a race to complete the pass of a slower vehicle and then to return quickly to the slower lane.
I never witnessed a car driven below the speed limit, camped out in the fast lane. For those who don’t know, the fast lane is the lane furthest from the acceleration/deceleration lanes, not the one closest to it. Cars were always passed on the driver’s side, never the passenger side of the car. I never witnessed a car weaving in and out of traffic. I never witnessed a car changing more than one lane at a time.
I couldn’t help but think about the planned construction of a traffic circle on Robinwood Drive. When this was first announced, I took note of the calls to Mail Call and letters to the editor. A casual reader would think this was the worst decision ever made by county staff or elected officials. Disaster was promised.
Let me assure readers that traffic circles work. They allow traffic to keep moving with minimal delays and limited queues of cars waiting for green traffic lights. It didn’t take me long to recognize their efficiency; but navigating them requires some things that are in short supply among our region’s drivers: courtesy, awareness of others, and use of turning signals.
One day in Britain, I walked to our neighborhood pub. I started talking to one of the regulars and mentioned to him that in Maryland we have cameras to enforce red lights and to reduce speeding in construction and school zones. He couldn’t understand why anyone would run a red light or endanger a construction worker or child. I didn’t dare tell him that our state law doesn’t enforce posted speed limits in these zones, but rather the posted limits plus 12-15 mph. He was shocked that in America, cars are driven slowly in the fast lane, some weave through traffic, and some will change more than one lane in a single movement. I asked about their traffic laws related to driving slow in the fast lane. His response, whether factually correct or not, was “There is no law. It is only common courtesy.”
Walking to our cottage that evening I wondered how much safer our own roads would be if we exercised more common courtesy when driving. What if we “raced” to the slow lane? What if we signaled lane changes and turns? If we exercised more common courtesy and considered how our actions affect others, we might actually end up making our roads safer for everyone.
David Hanlin is a Hagerstown resident. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.