Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Enough to drive you crazy -part II

The Doctor took his New York State roadtest today. After driving around the test area for three minutes, performing a three point turn and parallel parking, he was informed that he had passed. Bar a last-minute panic yesterday, when we realised that he had to turn up accompanied by a New York licensed driver, the whole thing was relatively painless. (He solved this particular problem by hiring a driving instructor to take him to the test. The guy turned up in a crappy old car, which he had forgotten to fill up with gas, and charged $100 for the pleasure.)

Even so, I could tell he was worried about it beforehand, because he kept muttering about it and even talked about getting a lesson. Although an excellent driver, I think he (like me) probably remembers with terror the UK driving test (both of us passed on our third attempt). But, I reassured him, it will be a travesty if you fail, when we are surrounded by some of most piss-poor drivers I've ever seen......

Because the kind of driving that, at home, you might point out and comment on (ahem, politely of course) as being truly appalling, is pretty normal here. And not by the usual culprits of delivery men (or white van men, as we might call them in London) or boy racers. Here the offender is more likely to be a glamorous mommy with large sunglasses and a huge SUV, or a suburban Dad taking his kids to the beach.

For example, it seems de rigueur to talk on your mobile while at the wheel, despite it being illegal. It's usually nice to have a cup of coffee in the other hand while you chat. The Doctor swears he passed a woman the other day who was doing the crossword.

Cutting corners when turning into junctions is also a Long Island speciality - particularly delightful if you are waiting at the lights on the other side of the road and come within inches of the bonnet of another car (usually one which already has a telltale dent in the side).

People drive badly whatever the weather. Tropical downpour? Pah. Just keep going at the speed you're at (which is always more than the incredibly conservative speed limit), ignore lake-like puddles and imminent danger of aqua-planing. Thunderstorm on the expressway? No problem, just act like you are the only car on the road, tailgating other vehicles before cutting across two lanes to an exit.

The major roads terrify me. To get from one end of Long Island to the other, you can take the Long Island Expressway, which is equivalent to a big four lane motorway, but is rammed with enormous trucks driven by truckers who have missed their calling as Formula One competitors. It is also home to some of the most aggressive driving I've seen outside of Palermo. Go in the fast lane, and you'll be honked if you aren't travelling at about three times the speed limit. Stay in the slow lane, and you run the risk that your lane will turn into an exit with no warning whatsoever.

If you can't face the L.I.E, you can take one of several State Parkways. These were built in the 1930s, supposedly for scenic leisure motoring through the countryside at the weekend. Trucks are banned, and they are usually surrounded by dense greenery on both sides. Sounds nice, eh? But no. Because they were built for much slower speeds, the entry and exit ramps are terrifyingly short. There is virtually no run-in, so you might well have to stop, and then join traffic travelling at at least 60mph when a space becomes available. And if you're on the road already, and travelling in the slow lane, a car may well appear seemingly out of nowhere to your right.

Even getting onto a parkway is also a major problem, as they are badly signposted and it's often not clear where the turning is. Only last week, a whole Long Island family was wiped out when a woman turned the wrong way onto a parkway in Upstate New York. A terrible tragedy, and although there are rumours she was feeling unwell, it gives me the sobering thought that it could have happened to anybody. Amazingly, she managed to drive for two miles the wrong way before the crash.

Fortunately the small residential roads I normally drive on are pretty slow, due to the number of 'All Way Stop' signs that stud them. These occur not only when there is a cross roads, but for example when two minor sideroads meet a major one. All cars must come to a stop. Everyone then sits in their car trying to gauge the expression on the other drivers' faces and working out who is going to go first. (The rule is apparently priority to the right, but no-one actually seems to obey that). Eventually one driver makes a tentative attempt to go, and everyone else follows suit. Approximately three minutes later, you are all on your way again.

But perhaps it's not surprising if all you need to get a licence is a three minute roadtest - plus the fiver hour compulsory theory session, which, The Doctor reports, consists mainly of watching ancient videos of guests on Oprah confessing their past drunk driving or speeding habits. The spotty 17-year-olds who made up the rest of the audience yawned their way through it.

Suddenly, I'm all grateful for the rigours of the UK test, the 'mirror, signal, manouevre' mantra and others rammed into my brain by my driving instructor, the fact that I know how to negotiate a roundabout. I just wish that everyone here had been through it too.

23 comments:

Iota said...

I read an American-in-the-UK blog recently which talked about having a driving lesson. The writer couldn't understand the mirror-signal-manouevre mantra. I found myself bridling inwardly, and thinking "understand it? understand it? you don't have to understand it - you just have to do it". It was almost as if someone had queried the meaning of the National Anthem!

In my state, it's illegal for a 15 year old to use a cell phone when driving, but by the time you get to 16, you're deemed competent to do both at the same time. Scary.

Almost American said...

Twenty odd years ago they gave me a Massachusetts license without any kind of a test based on the fact that I had a UK licence! They probably had no clue that we drive on the other side of the road in the UK - either that or they knew how superior the UK test is! ;-) I suspect I might fail the UK driving test nowadays . . .

I want one of those bumper stickers that says "Hang up and drive!"

Around here we tend to figure that the bad (inconsiderate) drivers are all from New York State or Boston.

I just blogged this week about renewing my US license, and having misplaced my UK licence.

Lisa L said...

Hi Nappy Valley Girl! I'm a long time reader, but haven't commented before.. (I don't think) In any case, I'm a U.S. transplant from Australia so understand alot of the issues you're facing. I must say Aussie drivers aren't all that stellar either. I have a totally unrelated question...Tomorrow I leave to join my sister Mandy (who will be travelling from Australia) in Britain. I have rented a travel phone and included are the various converter plugs that you need for charging up the phone in different parts of the world. I really don't want to take them all! Could you tell me what kind of prongs are on appliances in Britain when plugging stuff in? I know..wierd question...oh, and we only have a day and a half in London...any 'must sees?'

nappy valley girl said...

Iota - now that is truly terrifying. I know it's a big issue at the moment in the US. Aren't the Senate trying to get all states to ban texting and talking on cellphones?

Almost American - interesting - confirms my suspicion that New Yorkers are worse drivers than most places in the states. I'll be over to look at your blog.

Lisa - hello, and good luck with your trip to Britain. UK uses three prong plugs (sorry don't know the exact technical terms). You can usually buy converters at airports, though. Provided the voltage is the same (and I think it probably is between Aus and Britain). As for London, I would recommend the Tate Modern, the South Bank and a walk in Hyde Park - but it depends what you are into. Just remember you can walk almost everywhere, the Underground is not airconditioned and is hellish in summer!

Expat mum said...

I'm not sure which to be more outraged about - the fact that you're still saying "bonnet" after this long or that Almost American didn't have to take a test. Even though they are piss easy, (Sorry), I still managed to fail mine in Dallas. It didn't help that I had an argument with the examiner about the point, which to this day, I still question. But my daughter is about to take hers (at 16) and the test here is about 6 minutes. They either have to "pull over" or reverse through cones which are about 20 feet apart.
It's no bloody wonder.....
(And I just had a good old rant about texting and driving over at PosderRoomGrafitti (dot com)).

Expat mum said...

PowderRoomGrafitti - eek!

Mud in the City said...

I just think you're very brave to be getting behind the wheel in the US - I'm such a wimp when it comes to driving. I learnt to drive in the country - combine harvesters are fine, city driving scares the pants off me!

Potty Mummy said...

Sounds dreadful. Mind you, I think there are a fairly high number of those yummies driving SUV's here in London too... (or at least, there will be when they all get back from their 6 week long summer holidays...)

Nota Bene said...

So I guess a cycle is out of the question then...

A Modern Mother said...

What I hate about American drivers is that NOONE ever gives a courteously wave -- that little gesture goes so far.

What I hate about how my Scottish hubby was taught to drive is not fastening the seatbelt first. I know this is because he says it obstructs the view when backing out, but what he ends up doing is reversing and then fastening the seatbelt as he is driving which is not optimal I think.

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

I'm most proud of coming from a country that is competant on roundabouts, and even the odd double mini roundabout. I have a whole blog post planned about the rest of the worlds inability to use roundabouts at all.

It always takes forever to get used to the driving habits of another country. Usually you master them just before you go home.

mothership said...

We have TERRIBLE drivers in CA and the test is a joke. I know because I took it - drive around block, do not kill anybody and you pass. People here talk on phone, text (both illegal) drink coffee, put on mascara, fail to signal, do not understand which lane is which on the highway (under taking - which leads, naturally to quite a bit of undertaking) a favourite because nobody knows who is going where or how fast they should/could go in which lane. AGGH.
I have to stop now or I'll get road rage and I'm just sitting on the sofa

Expat mum said...

Queenager passed her test yesterday. It took all of ten minutes. When she came back in the car with the examiner, I thought she'd failed. I mean how can you test someone's driving in that space of time? She basically drove round the block (and he told her what to do when they got to the light), did a three point turn sort of thing involving cones, and that was it. No emergency stop, no hill start, no reversing around a corner. And in an automatic too! Sheesh.

Noble Savage said...

After having driven for a few years in the US and then finally getting my license over here last year, I have to strongly agree with you. American drivers are HORRIBLE, on the whole. British drivers? Excellent, on the whole. There are exceptions to each, of course, but those are my general observations after a full year of driving in the UK. The drivers here actually let you out of side roads and junctions without acting as if it was a form of aggression or a challenge to their man/womanhood.

I used to be terrified to drive here, thought I would never be able to do it, but now that I am I cringe at American driving. I was just in the US recently and the talking on cell phones while driving at high speeds shocked me! I'd also forgotten how nonchalant many people are about having a few drinks and then driving. In the UK the general populace seems to be much stricter about how much they can drink before they'd be at or over the limit.

Oh, and I may have my citizenship revoked for saying this but VIVA LA ROUNDABOUT! They are pure geniuis. But just to balance it out, I do hate parking here. It is a complete clusterf**k with the tiny spaces crammed together, no rhyme or reason to most carparks and the 'pay and display' ticket machines being so bloody far away from the car, which is really inconvenient when you have small children and have to dash back and forth, either leaving them unattended momentarily or dragging them across the car park and then back again to display the ticket. I'd rather do individual meters.

nappy valley girl said...

Expat Mum - so what should I say instead of bonnet then? I don't even know!

Mud - I guess it's really a question of not having a choice - it's so car-centric here that not driving is not really an option, especially with kids. But I do try to avoid it if I can.

PM - agreed, there are some bad Chelsea Tractor drivers, but usually travelling at slow speeds and parking badly around the Kings Road and Notting Hill!

NB - Well, let's just say that The Doctor shipped his bike out here, and he hasn't used it once yet.....

A Modern - are you sure your hubby was taught to drive like that? Certainly wasn't the case in the English test, where you had to do seatbelt up first. But maybe things were different in Scotland.....

Brit in Bosnia - I used to hate roundabouts, but am beginning to see their use more and more.....

Mothership - sounds just like here then....

Expat Mum - absolutely. The Doctor's theory is that they have so many people to get through the test and not enough examiners, so they can't be bothered and just go through the motions. Very dangerous.

Noble Savage - I do agree with you about parking. Much easier here. But then, they have more space. And American drivers would be crashing all over the shop if they had to park in British carparks....

Nicola said...

Love this post. It brings it all back. The initial shock of driving in Chicago had me paralysed for months. And I had quite happily zipped about all over the UK without a care in the world. In fact, driving was one of the things that gave me the greatest pleasures on my recent trip home. It is SO different (read: better).

And you're right - the driving system itself is unnerving. But more so is the ineptitude of the majority of the drivers. And don't get me started on the whole drinking and driving thing. It makes me seethe.

Hadriana's Treasures said...

Crikey! Your post is an education in itself. I'm dumbstruck. Literally.

Almost American said...

bonnet=hood
boot=trunk

I may have to blog about roundabouts now.

Mom/Mum said...

it's all been said, so I wont rattle on, suffice to say I think Uk drivers are safer than American ons. I only just did my test here, and my examiner spent the whole time on his phone to his office. he said, and i quote, "Well, you';ve got a UK license, you can obviously drive!"
I didn't realise our driving skills prowess had reached Midwest America!
BTW, today on the way to do the grocery shop, I seriously passed a lady reading her Sunday paper, whilst behind the wheel.
FOR REAL!

Mumof4 said...

Hope you don't mind but I have tagged you to do a lovely little meme:

http://fourdownmumtogo.blogspot.com/2009/08/write-on.html

nappy valley girl said...

Nicola - yes, I think I'll find driving a breeze when I eventually return to London....

Hadriana - I know, weird isn't it? You assume a first world superpower country would have safe driving....

Almost American - thank you. I did know trunk, but hood - now that is helpful.

Mom/Mum - it doesn't surprise me in the slightest. Sadly.

Mum of 4 - thanks - will put my thinking cap on....

Anonymous said...

When I go back I am continually remarking on how inept some (much?) driving is, and how badly maintained many cars are. From the point of view of someone who has lived in the UK for 30 years now, it just seems strange that there is so little interest in improving the situation.

Peter Bond

Liberty London Girl said...

I drove 4000 miles in seven wks in CA earlier this year, & the freeways in LA are EXACTLY the same as you describe. There was one where the exit was approx 100 metres after the last one and I had to pull over seven lanes of traffic in the dark ( crappy lighting), rain with nutters speeding on the outside lanes. I nearly just shut my eyes and went for it. LLGxx