When I first started driving in Britain, it was white-knuckle work. Not because I’m a timid driver. I drove cab for five years back in Minneapolis, which wasn’t a war zone, I admit, but it was and is a city, and the winter driving in particular could be hair-raising. Still, nothing prepared me for British driving.
The part I thought would be hard, keeping the car on the left, turned out to be the easy part, since that’s where all the other cars were and it’s easy enough to stay with the herd. When there’s no herd it was sometimes harder, but if there’s no one around you’ll do the least damage if you turn into the wrong lane. What was hard? Among other things, finding the steering wheel. More than once, I opened the passenger door, prepared to slip behind the wheel and drive, and instead stood there blankly thinking, Somebody stole my steering wheel. Who’d steal my steering wheel?
Look, I’m not responsible for what goes on in my head. As long as I refrain from acting on it, everything’s okay.
I had similar moments with the seat belt, when I’d be groping in mid-air wondering where it had gotten to. (FYI: In British, that would be got to. I have no idea why.) L.’s husband, she told me, spent a lot of his driving time slamming his hand into the door when he wanted to change gears.
But those are moments. They pass. The roads though? They go on for as long as you’re driving, and if you want to get philosophical about it you could argue that they go on regardless of whether you’re driving or not. So let’s talk about the roads.
Before my first trip here, I had no idea how narrow British country roads could be. At every blind turn (and oh, does this country have a lot of them), I was convinced some big damn truck was going to come barreling toward me with half its wheels—and half its everything else—on my side of the road. Because where the roads are seriously narrow, people can’t help driving down in the middle. And in other places, they could but they don’t. Or they don’t always. Its standard practice around here to shave a bit of the curve off two particular stretches of road. They don’t happen to be blind, but still, it’s not a great habit.
It took a long time, but I’m finally used to narrow roads. I’ve stopped expecting trucks to appear in my lane. I can drive the hour and a quarter to Plymouth, where Wild Thing goes for eye treatments (which are working, thanks for asking; there’s a limit to what they can do, but they’re doing what’s possible; six cheers for the NHS, and cheer fast before the government succeeds in wrecking it) without feeling like it’s a big deal. I suspect I could do it without getting out of bed.
But I’ll admit to being thrown by a sign I noticed on a recent trip: Oncoming traffic in middle of road.
The first question I have about this is why it’s worth noting. Even by British standards, the roads in Cornwall can get narrow—something I know because I see panicky British tourists plastering their cars to the hedges while oncoming drivers breeze past, barely bothering to slow down because what the hell, there’s at least an inch to spare. But in most of the places where that happens, you won’t find an Oncoming traffic in middle of road sign. So why put one in this particular spot?
Which was, just for the record, in Devon, not Cornwall, but still, it wasn’t in what I’ve learned to think of as a particularly narrow spot, although once upon a time it would have scared me brainless.
The second question is what they expect me to do what about it. Screaming comes to mind. Some people might want to pray. But neither of those reliably avoids, or even minimizes, an accident.
I can’t answer either question—don’t you love how much you learn from this blog?—but I can happily waste a bit more of your time considering it.
An age or two ago, when I asked what people would like me to write about, Terri suggested British road signs and I tried to be at least mildly amusing on the subject but bored myself silly. I’m not sure I’m being wildly amusing this time around, but I’m still awake, and that’s a good sign, so let’s keep going.
British road signs fall into three categories.
You see a sign that says 30 and you pretty much know you’re looking at the speed limit. Or you see a graphic that shows an intersection, a curve, two lanes turning into one. You can follow those. Or you see words: Ford; Reduce speed now; Slow. Useful but boring, so let’s move on.
Comprehensible (but only if you sent away for the secret decoder ring) signs
A lot of these are standardized European Union signs, which are wordless so that they’re equally incomprehensible in all of the many languages spoken throughout the union. Once you get used to them—well, I won’t say they make any intuitive sense but you can begin to think they do. A circle with a slash through it? Of course that means you can resume the national speed limit. The fascinating thing here is that you just know a whole committee of people spent hours—did I say hours? I meant months, and they felt like lifetimes—talking about what graphics people would intuitively understand. And then finally they looked at each other, said, “Screw it,” and settled on these, after which they went out for a drink.
Make that several drinks. They needed them.
Just to be clear, I’m not blaming them. They were handed an impossible and necessary task. Standardizing the signs makes sense. Making the signs wordless makes sense. Unfortunately, whatever solution you come up with will be absurd.
One of my favorites in this category made me think at first that I was being told to push my car off a pier when, in fact, I was being warned not to drive off one. But after a while, as long as you’re not in the car when it goes over, you begin to figure these things out.
If Britain leaves the EU this summer, a whole ‘nother committee will convene to discuss what to replace them with, because the old ones will be politically tainted. I can hardly wait to see what they unleash on us.
Some of my favorites in this category are the signs that warn you about road closures, because the people who write them are paid by the word (it’s the only explanation) and I’ve been a freelancer myself so I understand what they’re going through. They say things like, “We’re really very sorry about this, but we’re going to have to close this road between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. on Sunday 3 March in the year of our Lord 2016, and we hope it isn’t too inconvenient, especially since it may actually take a little longer than the time we have scheduled. We’ll finish up as soon as ever we can.”
I don’t care how much you slow down, you can’t read that. Neither can your passenger, even though he or she has the luxury of not watching the road. And you just know the sign writers would have squeezed in a few more words if they’d had a smaller font available.
One of the early signs of Wild Thing’s eye problems was that she had trouble reading road signs. Not just the road closure signs, but you know how it is: If you’re struggling with sane signs and then look at a road closure sign, you forget that you never could read them. Instead, you think, Crap, my eyes are worse than I thought.
So thanks for those, guys. We appreciate your efforts.
Then there are the signs that say “flood.” These are entirely legible to anyone with normal vision and they get put out where a heavy rain will flood the road. Then they get left there through drought and fire and plagues of locusts and they’re still there when the next flood comes around, although they may have faded into illegibility by then. Or been there so long that they’ve gone invisible. When I first saw them, I used to look around for a bunch of badly behaved water. Now, though, unless they’re actually sitting in water I ignore them. Which sort of defeats their purpose.
Directional signs range from the clear to the useless. I’ve driven through cities where the only way to leave a roundabout in the direction you had in mind is to read the markings on the road. (That’s assuming, of course, that you weren’t sharp enough to memorize the graphic of the roundabout that precedes it, which on our first trips here we often weren’t.) Lanes will be marked with things like “City Centre,” “Tavistock,” “Moon Landing Site,” and so forth. So far, so good. You find your lane and follow it. But the lettering on the road is only legible when traffic is thin. The moment other cars are rude enough to think they can share the roundabout with you, what do they do? They drive on the damn pavement. Which means they block the lettering. Which means you go through the roundabout three times, hoping for a gap in the traffic so you can read what they hid last time around.
In the U.S., we hang the directional signs above the traffic. They’re ugly as mud, but you can find them.
Other signs are homemade things. Some are little sparkly things asking you not to litter, which are so upbeat and good humored that you want to (first) sink your teeth into someone’s arm and (second) throw candy wrappers out the window. Followed by vodka bottles. Others are assertive black and yellow signs that say “Overhanging Roof” in the hope that if you’re driving a big honkin’ truck you’ll refrain from tearing the corner off their roof. Again. (Did I mention that the roads are narrow?) Or panicky signs that beg you to ignore your sat-nav because it will tell you to drive into someone’s living room, or into a lake, or down a street that’s too narrow for anything wider than Molly Malone’s fish barrow and we all know what became of her. Ever since we moved here, I’ve been seeing newspaper photos of truck drivers stuck in narrow streets, sometimes for days, while the world tries to figure out how to unstick him (to date and to my limited knowledge, they have all been hims)—or more accurately, his truck—without tearing down the houses. Here’s a photo from January of this year and another from March. And what did they do in the second incident? Arrested the driver. I guess if you’re driving and you see a house in your way you should probably hit the brakes and all, and maybe a traffic ticket really isn’t enough of a response to someone who doesn’t. Still, I can’t help sympathizing with a driver who’s watching the road get narrower and narrower, feeling an escalating sense of panic, and thinking, If I can only get out of here before anyone sees me, this will never have happened.
If there’s a single sign visitors want to learn before they come to Britain, it’s the one that says, “Ignore your sat-nav.”
I’m not sure any of that is what Terri had in mind when she asked me to write about road signs, but if not, ask the question again in a different way. I just might get it right. Or at least be funnier.