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.