Thursday, 8 October 2009

Of roundabouts and 4-way stops

When I first moved to the UK (almost 13 years ago) I had to learn a lot of things all over again. One of the most useful was to ‘learn’ to drive UK-style.

As you probably already know, the UK driving is on the left – and of course I learned to drive on the right. It’s not just a case of sitting on the other side of the car and going though, think about it: all the controls are in the ‘wrong’ place and the mirrors too! Thankfully the foot pedals are the same but things are different enough that I really did have to take lessons and stuff.

I had been driving for more than 10 years when I had to do all of this. The actual mechanics of driving were the easiest part – the challenge was learning the new rules and driving decently, at least during the test. (Those that know me will agree that I drive like a lunatic with lots of bad habits. I drive pretty decently now, until I get back home and then all those bad habits and lunacies make an appearance!)

Anyway, one thing that was different was roundabouts. In Mexico these are treated like any junction so one road will have the right of way over the other. But here, the rules are different and we give way always to the right (so to those cars that are already in the roundabout). The whole thing felt very weird to me, but thankfully at about that time we were already thinking of moving to Milton Keynes – possibly the world capital of roundabouts. So on our frequent house-searching expeditions, I got a lot of roundabout practice.

The thing about roundabouts though is that they may seem a bit complex but once you grasp the basic rule – give way to the right – they are simple to navigate. There is a clear rule, so the issue of who goes and who stops is non-debatable. It is binary: you either go or you don’t.

Back home we are more familiar with 4-way stops. These junctions work differently – the apparent rule is that whoever gets to the junction first has the right of way. But more commonly, the drivers will actually make some sort of gesture to indicate their preference: usually letting the other car go first. It’s an effective way to negotiate a junction, I think. But the rule isn’t as black or white as it is for roundabouts: some human contact is required to make a decision. I like 4-way stops.

Whenever we are back home and my husband is driving, he trembles with fear at the thought of a 4-way stop. Thing is, he says, he never is sure what to do: who goes first? How does it all work? Why is it always different? I tell him that it’s a matter of simply looking at the other driver and establishing contact. He finds it all very amusing and rather scary.

Roundabouts and 4-way stops are good metaphors for the cultural differences between the UK and America (and I mean this in its correct, Continental sense). Brits like things to be clear and not ambiguous; they will follow rules and do so gladly. Roundabouts are all about rules and clarity. Whereas Americans are more comfortable with human relationships and a bit of confusion, so 4-way stops are perfect for them.

In my case, after much practice I got really good at roundabouts. I like them a lot actually, and embrace the fact that Milton Keynes is famous for its roundabouts. But I am also very capable of navigating through any 4-way stop with ease, and in a way prefer them to roundabouts as they involve human contact, which is always nice.

Does this mean I am a perfect cultural blend? At ease both in the UK and in America? Or does it simply mean that I am a better driver than I used to be?

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