Driving in Britain: courtesy and narrow roads

British drivers are—at least to an American eye—amazingly considerate. Where two lanes narrow down to one, they merge in turn like the two sides of a zipper instead of edging each other out. When you’re stuck on some side street and losing hope that you’ll ever be able to cross the closer lane of traffic and turn into the far lane, someone will hold back and wave you across. And when the road’s too narrow for two cars to pass, most drivers will pull over if they’re close to a wide spot and see a car coming toward them, or they’ll back up if they know a wide spot is behind them.

You’ll notice, though, that I left myself some wiggle room in that first sentence: I said, “at least to an American eye.” If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, British drivers believe that [other] British drivers are rude, thoughtless, and hovering every second on the brink of lethal road rage.

Irrelevant photo: a stone circle at Minions.

Irrelevant photo: a stone circle at Minions.

They also—again, if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly—believe that the sky’s not as high as it used to be. But it’s hard to truly know what other people believe. That’s why I turn to tea leaves. I started buying loose tea not long ago, so I’m ready to check the tea leaves for an answer any question.

I do not, however, guarantee accuracy.

But even given my low standards for courteous driving, there’s always someone who’ll break the pattern, and I met him on a very back road some years ago.

It was the kind of road that hasn’t been graded (that, I think, is an Americanism; it means scraped until the humps fill in the potholes and you can drive it without jarring your fillings loose) since Henry VIII was in power. It also had stone walls on both sides and they were are set very close to the road. And for a long stretch, it had exactly one lane to accommodate traffic that ran in two directions. A lot of roads in Cornwall are like that, but this was a particularly narrow one.

I was halfway down it when another car showed up and instead of waiting for me to reach the end of the narrow stretch the driver drove straight at me. Since we were on the only straight road in Cornwall, he either saw me or was driving with his eyes closed. I assume he thought he could make me back up.

When roosters lay fried eggs he could. I kept going and when we were within pitching-a-fit distance of each other, I pulled as far toward the hedge as I could and turned the engine off. And there we sat. If I’d had a deck of cards, I’d have laid out a game of solitaire on the dashboard, but the best I could do was turn on the radio and stare serenely out into space. Eventually, he pulled as far to the left as he could and started nosing past me. Anything so he didn’t have to back up. There’s a bumper sticker around here that says, “Welcome to Cornwall. Your car’s not as wide as you think it is.” Well, mine is as wide as I think it is, and so was his, and I folded my wing mirror in but even so I wasn’t sure we wouldn’t both end up wearing each other’s paint jobs. And that was before his car tipped gently toward mine as his wheels rode up on a (really, very narrow) grassy stretch beside the road.

At this point I rolled my window down and said, “Are you okay?”

It was a serious question.

He stopped inching and said, “What did you say?” and if I’d wanted a fight I could have had one at a discount, although I can’t see how either of us would have gotten out of our cars unless we’d poured ourselves out the windows.

I repeated what I’d asked, and I don’t remember that he answered me, but he turned away and started inching again, and eventually he got past me and I started my engine and left.

I don’t’ know what, if anything, that tells you about driving in Britain. But it does tell you not to take cultural generalizations too seriously. Even when they’re true, you can always find an exception.

54 thoughts on “Driving in Britain: courtesy and narrow roads

  1. I loved your description. There is always that one driver isn’t there? Yesterday, the power went out and about every driver understood the traffic lights were now 4 way stops. Well, except for the one who seemed to be blind and just whizzed through the intersections.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. On my one visit to England, my best friend there took me on a bit of a tour. I found some of those roads terrifying but he managed quite well. I took a video of one just to prove to my wife that I wasn’t exaggerating.

    Just so I can calibrate the scale, did you drive cab in Brooklyn of Minnesota?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I love that you didn’t budge. Wanker.
    And, like Dan, my friend drove on my trip to Newbury. She claimed to be nervous, driving those walled roads with oncoming traffic, but kept a steady 50mph. I, on the other hand, was hiding in the knee hole.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ill-mannered driving is unusual for a rural area like Cornwall. I think you were just unlucky on that particular day Ellen. In general, UK driving behaviour gets worse the nearer you are to a city, and it’s worst of all in and around London. Most of it’s down to impatience and an attitude of “the rules of the road apply to everyone else but me” – the latter being a particular speciality of white van drivers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I won’t disagree, but I’d still argue that British drivers on the whole occupy the road with a much more cooperative spirit than American drivers–again, on the whole. Even in cities (and I admit, I’ve only driven in London twice and don’t plan to repeat the experience if I can help it since I have no idea where the hell I’m going, which makes me a hazard).


  5. I drive on country roads and lanes every day, and feel that I am quite considerate of other drivers,e.g pulling over to the side of the road etc, but they are a huge amount of drivers that just aren’t. I come across at least one every day. For example a car that won’t move over as they are driving a fancy high end car that they couldn’t possible drive onto the grass a little, forcing me to put half of my car onto the grass. If had both moved over slightly there would have been enough room and that’s usually what I do. Or people who do not know the size of their own car.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I started reading this with all kinds of amusing car/driving anecdotes of my own buzzing around inside my head, waiting for one to settle into a comment-able anecdote. Then I read this sentence: “When roosters lay fried eggs he could.” And my whole brain exploded into a laugh track I haven’t yet managed to shut down.

    So no Alice anecdotes for you today. #sorrynotsorry #allyourownfaultreally

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I grew up in Boston where the narrow streets followed what were originally cow paths. Said to have the craziest drivers ever. I don’t know if they’ve maintained that reputation, but they made a sport out of riding bumpers (allowing little, if any, distance between cars). There was a narrow tunnel that took you to the airport where some 4-5 lanes merged into one before (or after? – it’s been a very long time since then) the toll booth. This was not a place for the meek or mild. Actually it was an intense game of chicken.

    From there I moved to San Francisco where commuter traffic across the bridges was pretty intense, dodging from one lane of traffic to the other to gain maybe a half car length until the other lane nudged ahead.

    Gradually I moved out to the boonies and found that folks were a lot more laid back except for the folks from the city. When we finish the renovation on the new/old house, we’ll be moving 50 miles south on the Oregon coast. That puts us within 30 miles to the California border. It’s very easy to pick out the inconsiderate drivers by the way they drive and their license plates. My experience, and perhaps the same is true in your Cornwall, is that folks who live in larger cities are likely to have less manners and consideration when they drive. These days you couldn’t pay me enough to drive back to the East Coast.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Truly hilarious take on what was a no-doubt exasperating moment on the road. Do love how you handled it though, up and to asking the other driver if he was okay! I would have been tempted to ask “Do you have any Grey Poupon?” just to see the perplexed expression on his face.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. The majority of drivers in our part of the country (mid-Wales) couldn’t be nicer, but the place which is hell on wheels (and off) is London and other big cities. Rudeness and selfishness abound. Maybe your driving combatant was a townie?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Possibly, but London drivers are usually the ones who cower alongside the hedges, letting other drivers judge the distance. They’re paralyzed by how narrow the roads are. I know that’s a generalization, but it’s hard for me not to think he was someone local.


  10. Hi Ellen!
    I’m still on an Australian cruise ship with mostly Australians. In Sydney everyone drove on the sie of the road they drive on in England. I may not be in England, but it sort of feels like it. I’m home Thursday. What’s your opinion on Brexit, may I ask?
    Thanks for bringing your post to last week’s Blogger’s Pit Stop.
    Janice, Pit Stop Crew

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Janice,

      Hope you’ve had a great trip. My opinion on Brexit can be summed up by saying oy vey, a Yiddish phrase (in case you don’t know any Yiddish; sorry, I’ve been in rural Britain a long time and no longer take it for granted) that’s useful when the world’s falling apart. I understand the anger that drove a lot of people to vote for it, but the Leave campaign whipped up a huge amount of anti-immigrant feeling and seems to have given permission for a lot of people to publicly insult and attack immigrants–or people they think are immigrants. It’s chilling. Then there are the economic consequences–the pound falling like a stone, the economy looking shaky. And no one in the Leave campaign seems to have thought about what they’d do if they won. They didn’t really expect to. For most of the leaders, I expect, it had more to do with promoting their careers than with actually leading the country anywhere.

      Having said all that, I think the EU’s a deeply flawed institution. It’s bureaucratic, not particularly democratic, and very much in service of the mega-corporations. But it’s also kept peace in most of Europe since World War II. I’m not sure what the consequences of Britain leaving will be. The ultra-right wing parties in other states seem to have been emboldened by the Brexit vote. Will the whole thing fall apart and component countries turn on their immigrants, and then on each other? In my darker moments, I don’t think it’s unlikely.

      Aren’t I a ray of sunshine? Have a great trip. Don’t listen to me.


  11. Your narrow Cornwall roads sound challenging to any vehicle — motorcycles aside. And the bumper stickers are brilliant; too many people don’t know where the passenger side of their car ends. I think one driving lesson should include driving down a narrow residential two way street with a line down the center and parked cars along both curbs. Perhaps in the middle of the night when there’s no traffic. The driver must keep the car in the proper lane. When the driver’s sweat is visible, s/he has to stop the car, get out and go stand behind it, so s/he can see how much room there really is between the car and the parked cars on that side of the road. It’s eye-opening.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: What the world really wants to know about Britain, part 10ish | Notes from the U.K.

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