As I lounge on my couch with the Sunday papers, which I read on Wednesday evening, munching on a buttery scone and drinking a steaming cuppa one sentence grabs me; “The best way to visit America is to Fly ‘n’ Drive”. The article went on to describe the pleasure of discovering unknown treasures on the forgotten roads of Louisiana or Oregon by driving away from the usual tourist hot spots. This is true, but as someone who previously lived in the States and watched a news helicopter fly over a 40-car pile-up, I would caution a word of warning to any European planning on driving in America – make sure your air bags work and maybe make your dash board as soft and squishy as possible. This pre-emptive step will reduce the headache that will inevitably come on after the third time you kiss the top of the steering wheel or glove box with your now bruised and frankly fed up forehead.
The reason for this warning? Well American drivers are very strange creatures. They need to and will always travel in a pack. The regulatory braking distance of a car length that we were all taught, painfully in some cases, doesn’t seem to apply in the wide roads of America. Now don’t get me wrong while sitting in the two hour grid lock of LA or Houston, a car length between cars here is never going to happen. What I am talking about is the open Interstate roads of the MidWest.
I have decided it is a competition, as most things are in America. If they see a car in the distance they must, absolutely must catch up with it and demonstrate how powerful their engine is by revving the engine at full throttle (I have yet to work out how you do this in a car that is travelling seventy miles per hour without blowing the engine through the bonnet, or hood in this case). It is the modern day caveman chest thump, but it is not wholly restricted to men, women are just as talented at this demonstration of macho-ism.
The problem for an European driver comes when we drive as we were taught and keep falling back to obtain that obligatory braking distance, gradually reducing our speed to that of a Granny out for her Sunday drive. But even with this dangerously low speed this gap never lasted more than two minutes in all my time of driving in America. Such blissful two minutes, I’d have the luxury of less tensed shoulders and deep breathing. Then, back to the normal position of white knuckled fingers gripping the steering wheel and scanning the road ahead for any flash of brake lights. The cars ahead never seemed to pass much heed of these brake lights until the last possible moment, when they would slam on their brakes and squeal to a stop behind the almighty truck in front of them. I wondered if they did it just to see if the brakes did in fact squeal when asked to come to a complete stop in less than fifty feet from the top speed of seventy plus miles per hour.
I survived this insane method of driving due to one strange loophole in Irish traffic legislation, which existed up until recently. You were at one point, in Ireland, allowed to fail a driving test and then drive home from said test. While I never failed a driving test I did manage to obtain a second provisional licence by the fact that my wallet was stolen. Once on the highly sought after second provisional it wasn’t necessary to have a responsible fully qualified driver in my car at all times, you were free to drive like a loon and no one would be the wiser.
This bizarre method of training young drivers did in fact prepare me to deal with and adapt to unusual driving situations like the ones I discovered in America.
To be fair the glorious United States of America is not the only country with weird and wonderful driving practices. Greece. Everyone should drive in Greece, once. Just once to see how it is possible to be a suicidal egocentric driver while attaining a level of politeness that is to this day unmatched, and reaching the aimed for destination without loss of life or limb.
France is another life flashing country. The French, in particular the Parisians, are experts at causing you to see every little aspect of your life just before you die, or at least that is what it feels like. Personally I would recommend someone to stand and watch this next example, I feel only a seasoned driver should attempt it.
I once saw an interview with Kristin Scott Thomas, that classy actress from “The English Patient” who said driving in Paris was an experience. This is an understatement. Her advice to drivers taking on the Place de l’Étoile (twelve avenues of traffic converging onto one monstrous roundabout) is to “pick your exit, close your eyes, put your foot down, and pray to every God and saint you can think of.” You will eventually reach your exit, get off the monstrous roundabout and die on the other side due to the adrenaline overload.
Another thing to note in Paris is that all cars will have dents and scrapes. This will be from the parking of a large car like a BMW, into a space that would be cosy for a Honda Civic. The BMW will be parked, because the owner having seen this space and the fact that they need to go and do important things like people watch while sipping on their espresso and looking swish, will park their car. The BMW will be squeezed in by virtue of nudging the two cars either side up and down and making all the paintwork dance and mingle. The car is now parked.
So while I started out warning European drivers about the perils of driving in America maybe I should also warn the American’s about the nonchalant way European drivers go about their business. Italian drivers would of course demand a piece all to themselves, well what else would you expect from a nation that happily dominated most of Europe for centuries.