American vs English driving

Published: 10 June 2010

I’m not a particularly big football fan, but I’ve heard there are a few games coming up, and that this weekend America is having something of a kick-about with England. Now, I can’t tell you anything about either team’s chances simply because I don’t care, so I thought I’d instead twist a footie head-to-head into a driving head-to-head.

There’s a lot that’s different about driving in America – the lower speeds, the scabbily paved freeways, the four-way stops at crossroads. But a few things in particular really struck me about driving in the US during a recent visit to California. Pedestrians, for instance, are treated with more respect in the kind of built-up areas that are busy, but not so busy as to demand traffic lights – there are just so many places for them to cross the road, and, because of that, the 25mph limit feels about right because there’s a fair old chance that someone will step out in front of you in the absolute and total belief that you will stop. I prefer this. 1-0 to America.

America has evolved into an indicator-free society – they never use them. And, in heavy traffic, Americans are more aggressive than us, switching lanes into non-existent spaces without, yep, any indication.  We get one past Obama’s team. 1-1.

They can’t do roundabouts. There aren’t many circular junctions in America, but I used a beautiful one – nicely kept up, spurting fountain in the middle – in Berkeley (off Marin Avenue if you want to take a look on Street View) with six arteries, a bewildering mix of give-way and stop signs and, well, utter, utter carnage. If you’re ever in the area, I urge you to walk up there – and I stress the word walk – and watch from a safe distance. Chaos. 2-1 England.

You can overtake or undertake on the freeway, even though signs occasionally remind you to keep right. Years ago I remember Clarkson banging on about how good this was, but it’s actually rubbish. On lightly trafficked stretches it works because you can simply dodge around the dozy types lounging in the fast lane. But as the traffic flow eases towards moderate, so the logic comes unstuck. No-one feels any pressure to move over because, they presumably reason, other drivers can overtake or undertake. This creates rolling roadblocks. 3-1 England.

Americans don’t flash. Us Brits are terrible flashers. We flash to let someone out, flash because we’re furious, because we’re hyper-excited that we know someone, because someone overtook where it was perfectly legal to do so, because there’s a speed trap around the corner. Combine that with flashes of hazard lights to say thank you and it’s all getting a bit excited and European and bombastic. Granted, America’s better preservation of headlight bulbs is a by-product of it being an indicator-free society, and they do honk if you don’t have Hamilton-esque reactions at the traffic lights, but I prefer a motoring world free of strobing headlights. Another one for America, but England still leads 3-2.

Yet what I liked most about driving in America is that Americans are not psychotic. We are. Everything’s lovely, the sun is shining, then someone tries to get a car length on us as two lanes merge to one at the roadworks, and we squeeze them against the impending cones like we’re Vettel and he’s Webber. And, the absolute f*****g c******d b*****d f****r, he gets the jump on us! All thoughts of reaching our destination vanish as we intensely visualise following said motorist to his home and bludgeoning him incessantly with a car jack. Kill kill kill! Space was mine! Mine! Die!

The Americans might be more aggressive with their manoeuvres, but, because they’re better at articulating what annoys them in everyday life – and perhaps because they’re never sure whether or not the Escalade driver alongside is packing an Uzi – they’re better at keeping a lid on their tempers while driving. 3-3.

So, after 90 minutes we find ourselves at the penalty shoot-out (or is that extra-time? I’m never quite sure) and in need of a clear-cut resolution. I’m the referee and I’m English, so it’s only fair that we win. Ultimately I’d like to think we deserve it too, what with our better-surfaced roads, our generally higher standard of driving and the greater amount of attention we pay to the road, plus our better understanding of constructing and driving around roundabouts. The Americans, though, still have a lot to teach us. After all, when did you last see a car in America with a pair of those idiotic tack-on flags flapping from the rear windows?

By Ben Barry

Contributing editor, sideways merchant, tyre disintegrator