You can’t write about living in America without talking about cars — particularly if you live in the ‘burbs. To say this is a “car-oriented culture” is an understatement; suburban shops and entertainment places are built around parking lots (car parks) and parking garages (multi-story car parks). People assess how far away something is by how long it takes to drive there. It’s not unusual to drive half an hour — or more — to get to a favorite restaurant.
The obvious difference for a Brit over here, of course, is driving on the right side of the road. Along with the driver’s seat being on the left of the car, you have to get used to using that left side wing mirror all the time, and you have to train yourself to look up and to the RIGHT to see the rear view mirror. Until you get used to the difference, backing up is quite a challenge.
So. Many. Cars.
But, in addition to the whole driving-on-the-right thing, there are a host of other differences between driving in the States and driving in the UK. And the scariest, for me, is the sheer volume of traffic, particularly on the interstates (major motorways that, well, connect between states). Yes, there is heavy volume on the M1 in the UK, particularly in rush hour; and yes, anyone fool enough to drive into London is in for a traffic nightmare. But the eastern seaboard of the USA is much, much worse.
When you drive over the Ben Franklin Bridge from Philadelphia into New Jersey there’s a point where a couple of highways and smaller roads merge and suddenly you’re in the midst of seven lanes of traffic, all headed in the same direction. And all going very fast. This picture is coming over the Bridge in rush hour — it gets worse from here.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, about a quarter of all vehicle miles driven in this country use the interstate system. Built in the 1950s (apparently as a way to move troops around in the event of an invasion), the main interstates have two-digit names, with even numbers for east-west routes (like I76, which runs 435 miles from near Akron, Ohio, into New Jersey) and odd for north-south (like I95). Spurs that tend to service the cities get a three-digit number (I276).
Drivers on highways and even smaller roads “undertake” (pass in the slow lane) all the time; which makes overtaking a big truck really nerve wracking as you never know if some idiot is hurtling up the inside (right) lane ready to pull back in front of the truck at the same time that you are trying to return to the middle lane after dutifully passing on the left. There’s no admonition not to “hog” the center lane on a three-lane highway. And, if you’re pedantic enough to sit in the fast lane at the speed limit, you’ll get honked at. A lot.
Maximum speed limits are actually set by each state; on freeways/major highways, unless otherwise indicated, the speed limit is the state maximum. Here in Pennsylvania, that’s 70mph (yes, it’s all miles over here — and gallons, and yards — no metric anywhere). Out in rural west Texas and Utah, there are some highways sections with speed limits of 80mph.
One of the hardest things to get used to when on a major highway of any kind is that they don’t usually have lane markings as directions. So you have to look for overhead signs at the same time as hoping the people to either side don’t suddenly decide to change lanes. Which is another of my big-truck fears — get stuck behind one and you may not see the signs to exit or change lanes until it’s too late and you suddenly find yourself headed north instead of west.
And about those trucks (no, I can’t call them lorries; that’s just not a big enough word). They can be huge. I mean enormous, gigantic behemoths…there isn’t enough hyperbole.
Back in the summer I took a visiting English relative out to Lancaster County, west of where we live, to see the countryside and the world of the Amish. When we stopped at a local ice cream parlor she suddenly whipped out her camera — not to take pictures of passing Amish horse-drawn buggies, but to snap the massive trucks blasting down the road. Imagine spotting one of these in your rear view mirror, when hurtling along an interstate at 70mph.
Everything Looks Different
Away from the interstates, the road architecture is still very different. Road signs tend to be more brusque — “yield” rather than “give way.” Traffic lights are usually hanging out over the road rather than standing to one side — which gets unnerving in windy weather when the whole contraption starts bouncing up and down alarmingly.
There are almost no roundabouts (“traffic circles”); and the few that do occur tend to confuse the heck out of American drivers. Instead, there are stop signs at intersections. Railroad crossings in the neighborhoods are startlingly naked, just one flimsy arm that
swings down if a train is coming.
And then there’s “right turn on red”: the one American traffic rule guaranteed to have any UK visitors clutching at their seats in a panic. Bearing in mind that you’re already driving on the right-hand side of the road, this is exactly what it sounds like — you’re allowed to turn right at a red traffic light, provided you’ve come to a complete stop and there’s no traffic or pedestrians in the intersection.
The Scariest Drive of All
But I have to admit that even the terror of the Ben Franklin Bridge in rush hour pales into insignificance compared with some back roads in the UK, in places like Cornwall or Cumbria. Or, the mountain roads in Snowdonia — a sheer drop on one side, a soaring hill on the other, sheep everywhere, and the dotted white line down the middle of the road suddenly disappears as the road narrows alarmingly. What are you supposed to do if you encounter someone driving in the other direction? Fortunately, I’ve never found out.
A few years ago, on a family trip to the UK, we spent some time in Cumbria. One night, we visited a local pub a few miles from where we were staying. At closing time, we found out that the only way out of the village was actually the same as the way in — a mile-and-a-half of narrow, winding road that was about two feet wider than the rented car, with thick six-foot tall hedges on either side. It was 11pm, and pitch-dark (no nearby towns to give off ambient light).
And then the fog came down. THAT was the longest drive of my life.