Oh the Joys: Summer 1999

Bill Piggott follows on from his article in the spring 1999 issue about the legislative hurdles that have to be overcome before one can sample the joys of motoring over in England. This second part deals with driving habits and regulations, and how they differ from those in the U.S.A.

The main thing (other than the fact that we drive on the “wrong” side of the road) that Americans renting vehicles in England notice, after venturing on our highways for the first time, is our higher traffic speeds—considerably higher in most cases. Conversely, when I first drove in the U.S.A., particularly in the east, I couldn’t believe how slowly everyone went, even on clear, straight country roads. This is a real paradox, as generally folks in the U.S.have further to go.

Since many states raised their speed limits a year or two ago, your limits and ours are roughly in line, but you wouldn’t believe this to judge from the traffic speeds here. European drivers, British included, tend to see speed limits as merely advisory, whereas my experience in the U.S.A. is that they are much more closely observed, and penalties for breaches of the law are much harsher.

In Britain, you would be very unlucky to he ticketed or taken to court if you were caught doing a mere 10 miles an hour over any particular limit. However, in Arizona last year, I was given a severe talking to by the Highway Patrol for being no more than two or three miles over the limit, and I’m certain that I only escaped a ticket by virtue of my accent! That would never happen in Britain—you would have to be around 10 miles an hour over the posted limit to even merit being stopped—after all, why should the cops stop someone traveling at 10 mph over, when there are any number to be caught at 20, or even 30, over the limit?

Here in Britain, we have an overall speed limit of 70 mph, which applies, unless otherwise posted, to all dual-car carriageway roads (divided highways) and motorways (equivalent to the American interstate). On these roads, the great majority of cars travel at between 70 and 85 mph and being passed at a 100 mph, usually by a Jaguar, Mercedes, or BMW, is nothing unusual. The biggest trucks (or lorries) make 60-70 mph, but then I’ve noticed in the U.S.A. that the greatest cavaliers regarding the speed limits are truck drivers.

On main roads that are not dual carriageways, and all other country roads where no limit is posted, 60 mph is top whack. In towns, plus other built up areas, a 30 mph limit is normal, although 40 and 50 mph limits occur on the fringes of urban development. Speed reducing humps in the road are used to try to slow vehicles down in the 30 mph limited areas (try negotiating these in your Austin-Healey 100!) and these are quaintly known as “sleeping policemen.” Sure, they slow traffic down, but do nothing for the exhausts on low cars, or the safely of motorcyclists, and they drive local residents who have to negotiate them all the time quite mad!

Then we have the spy cameras—the dreaded grey box upon a pole invented by a certain famous Dutch rally driver, Maurice Gatsonides. There are now thousands of the cursed contraptions all over these islands, sometimes placed with justification at genuine traffic hazards and accident black spots, but just as often placed out in the country for no reason other than to create revenue in fines for H. M. Government. They don’t really work, however, as everyone gets to know where they are, slows down appropriately, and resumes their habitual speed rapidly thereafter.

In fact, the majority of these cameras are said to be dummies, having no actual mechanism inside the box. As many as 80% may be fakes, I hear. Even those that flash at you as you speed past do not always have film in them. I had this from Gatsonides himself when I interviewed him some time ago. Nevertheless, they are a bloody nuisance and in this writer’s opinion, do nothing for road safety. Quite the reverse, in fact, as drivers spend time looking for cameras and then braking sharply, when they should be concentrating on road conditions and driving safely.

Incidentally, the latest joke over here is to creep up behind a Gatso-style speed camera at night, when nobody’s around, with a step ladder and a black plastic trash bag, and then pop the bag over the camera’s head. That shuts it up for a bit. Quite illegal, of course, but nevertheless totally non-damaging. I didn’t see any sign of Gatso speed cameras when I was in the U.S. Maybe they’re just better concealed.

Our police cars also carry all the other nasty electronic trickery that I’m sure U.S. citizens arc equally familiar with, and our speeding motorists fight back with dash-mounted radar detectors—legal to possess and sell, but illegal to use, would you believe? Upon being pulled over for speeding, assuming the device has failed you, it can easily be unplugged and pocketed. Warning headlight flashes to warn oncoming motorists when one has passed through a speed trap are the norm here (again illegal). This is a common practice in France, where two motorcycle cops will often lurk in the middle of a village with radar guns. Almost without exception, motorists going the other way will give a flash as a warning to save one a few hundred francs in fines, which is very considerate.

Turning to other traffic differences between our two countries, I suppose one of the most important is that purely British institution—the roundabout. They exist in Britain in the thousands and have now caught on in France as well. They can come in full-size form, complete with cherub stones, mounds of earth, trees, etc., in the center, and also in mini roundabout form, which is often no more than a painted circle on the road surface. The roundabout is at its most useful at a crossroads, the cardinal rule being that vehicles already circulating the roundabout have priority over those trying to enter it. This usually works well and speeds up the traffic flow considerably. However, some of the biggest roundabouts linked with motor way junctions have to be aided by traffic signals, as otherwise cars would never be able to enter the circle, there being no break in the traffic already circulating. Such has been the proliferation of the roundabout in recent years that some cities can boast a hundred or more. One particular town, Milton Keynes, is known as Donut City.

American visitors are usually daunted at the considerable speeds at which traffic joins and circulates on roundabouts, but they soon get the hang of it, and in my experience, become converts to the system. In fact, I once encountered an American roundabout in Massachusetts, so maybe they’ll catch on in the U.S. They certainly save the power and maintenance costs of traffic signals. (We even have one here in Santa Barbara, Bill. -Ed.)

Other U.S. traffic regulations unknown in Britain include signals controlling the entrance to freeways on ramps (slip roads in our parlance), the ability (in some states) to turn right on the red light if the road is clear (always illegal in Britain!), and car pool lanes. The carpool lanes seem to be an excellent idea to me, and I can’t imagine why we don’t yet have them, although we do have priority lanes for buses and taxis in some cities. Overtaking on both sides of the freeway is illegal here—only the outer (right hand) lanes can be used for overtaking.

Minimum age for drivers in the U.K. is 17 years and motorists who have not passed the driving test have to carry a red and white “L” plate affixed lo their car (L for learner) and must be accompanied by a qualified driver at all limes. The MOT driving test is quite severe, and comprises two parts: a written test on traffic rules and regulations, followed by an hour-long practical driving examination under the supervision of a government inspector. Only about 35% of candidates pass at the first attempt (I didn’t!), but once having passed the test, there is no requirement ever to be tested again, providing one doesn’t commit some gross driving felony.

Licenses can be withdrawn or suspended, this procedure being based on a series of penalty points incurred for various misdemeanors. One has to avoid getting 12 points on one’s license, for the dreaded 12 points means an automatic loss of license for three or six months. Points are commensurate with the severity of the offense committed. Minor offenses such as defective lights or speeding only usually incur two or three points, whereas dangerous driving can incur up to nine points. Conviction for driving under the influence of drink or drugs is outside the points system, and results in automatic disqualification for at least a year. Once you hit the 12 points limit, you lose your license, the points are wiped out, and you start again with a clean sheet. (And take a new test and pay higher insurance premiums.) Needless to say, being booked for an offense carries not only a points penalty but also a substantial monetary fine.

One other major difference I’ve noted between our respective countries is that, on the whole, the American driver is noticeably more considerate than the European one. In Europe, driving is viewed as something of a competition a lot of the time. The laid back style is rarely seen—”cut & thrust” might be a better phrase to describe British urban and motorway driving. France is even more frenetic, while Italian city driving defies belief. In Germany there is still no overall speed limit, and on the autobahn one is overtaken by a constant stream of large German saloons traveling between 100 and 140 mph.

By and large, the driving is pretty safe, but when they do have accidents, my goodness, they tend to be big ones! European drivers tend to be sharper and more alert, but then they have to be—traffic densities tend to be higher, and speeds certainly are. In conclusion, I am given to understand that the overall accident rate is much the same in Britain as in the U.S., but the driving styles certainly differ.

Perhaps this can best be summed up by re-telling an old British joke. Question: What is the definition of a split second? Answer: The time between the lights turning green and the fellow behind you blowing his horn!



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