Fast Cars in the UK

Someone recently asked me whether I thought people in England drive too fast. The question took me by surprise because, no, with but a few notable exceptions people in the UK do not drive fast. It probably isn’t for a lack of a speedy impulse but for the restrictions UK traffic calming measures impose.

Yes, the UK keeps traffic slow through the use of ubiquitous speed cameras, speed traffic calming (1)bumps, winding roads that twist and double back for no discernible reason, one-lane two-way roads, and lines of parked cars on both sides of all public roadways. (Yes, there are motorways, but I rarely see one.)

All this combines to make travel in the UK quite slow indeed. It is a cliché to say that Americans think 200 years is a long time and Brits think 200 miles is a long way, but it became a cliché because it’s true. In the US, I would generally estimate my arrival time by allowing one minute for each mile. If I needed to travel 15 miles, I would allow 15 minutes (20 minutes if it was important enough to have a few extra minutes). In the UK, 15-mile trips regularly take 45 minutes or more, even without major traffic disruptions. A 200-mile trip is not something to be taken lightly.

For the most part, Brits are patient and courteous in traffic, taking turns and letting one another pass in a fairly equitable arrangement. You occasionally run into a rude and selfish driver, of course, but it isn’t the rule. Brits will tell you they are known for their ability to queue (stand in line) in an orderly, polite, and efficient manner.

If they are better at standing in queues than other cultures, it must be because they have so many opportunities to do so. Queues abound, and they are not famous for moving quickly. Things generally move faster in the US—except the post office. I typically get in and out of the post office much faster in the UK than in the US.

Life in the UK is mostly slower than what I’ve been used to, and I like it that way almost all the time. Sometimes the American in me breaks out and I get exasperated with pointless waiting, but every American has to be an ugly one from time to time, even if we are trying to dispel stereotypes.

Of course, Brits can lose their patience, too, when pushed too far. And that’s what Northern Rail has done. By making everyone late to absolutely everything, Brits in the northwest now have to rush around all the time, getting a taste of the American goal of always shaving a few minutes off travel time and being perpetually irritable. Surely, something will have to be done.

English Politeness and Deference: Passing in Tight Places

I mostly appreciate the politeness I encounter in the towns and villages in northwest England, but sometimes my American and more urban sensibilities leave me a little frustrated. Necessity and custom in England require both vehicles and pedestrians to negotiate who will pass when space is too limited for traffic to move unimpeded. When the pause in movement is required by limitations of space, of course I appreciate theIMG_6911 polite manner most English residents negotiate who will pass first.

I don’t drive myself in England, so I will leave a discussion of vehicular negotiations for later, but walks often require similar etiquette. Walking on a footpath or pavement (sidewalk for the Americans) sometimes requires making space for someone to pass.* English manners demand that often both pedestrians will pause, turn to the side, and motion for the other to proceed. In short order, one or the other will give in and pass first with a cheery “thank you” to ensure that English politeness is rewarded.

That’s all quaint and lovely, and I find it absolutely comforting to know that people will still look out for one another in this way. Sometimes, though, the path is plenty wide for two people to pass without even pausing, but some insist on pausing and standing to the side anyway. As an American, I just find this to be an unnecessary and, I admit, annoying waste of time and effort. I still mutter a quiet “thanks” as I pass, but not without a taste of resentment. Sometimes, you just want to get on with your life, you know? I guess if I want that kind of life, I should stay in the city where one must look after oneself.

*In rural America, this scenario doesn’t play out often if at all. Rural America doesn’t have the population density of the English countryside, so it isn’t often you will pass anyone you don’t know. If you do pass someone you don’t know, you are likely to be suspicious and try to ascertain the stranger’s business in the area. Also, in America, if you are walking in the countryside, you are probably on private land, so you would definitely expect to know everyone you encounter. Any stranger would be a trespasser, and no one in America ever fought for the freedom to roam across farms and ranches. If you are English, please don’t ever try to cross a farmer’s land in the US. Most farmers will approach you with a loaded gun in hand, and shooting you would be completely legal.