I had been in Scotland for a couple of days. The trip from the airport was fine and I managed to find the hotel alright. It is one of the advantages of driving in a country whose road signs were in your native language, at least for the most part.
The time difference was about five hours. I thought I was getting used to that as I got dressed for work and the commute in. I was up early enough to grab some breakfast. I found I could deal with the toast being dry and set in racks so it was always room temperature. I wondered how the natives would react to warm buttered toast with sugar and cinnamon on top.
A quick dash back to my room to clean up my teeth and I was ready. I had plenty of time for the drive in and made sure that I had my laptop bag and papers. Stepping outside the air was clear and just slightly damp as there was a hint of fog that was quickly dissipating.
I strode with confidence to the rental car and opened the door and threw my bag in the back seat. Then settled in to the driver’s seat…and swore. I hoped that no one had been watching this American as I got out of the passenger side and went over to the right side of the car to get behind the steering wheel.
I knew that I had to concentrate to overcome a couple of decades of habit. Left, left, LEFT! I drummed into my head as I navigated my way to the motorway. That is the UK equivalent to our interstate highways. Also known as the “M” roads.
Centering yourself properly on the road took real concentration. It made me realize just how much driving in the States had become automatic. Checking my mirrors I cursed silently again looking UP on the left and DOWN on the right. Whew, this definitely kept me awake and alert as I merged into the M road traffic and into what at home would have been the high speed lane fighting the urge to slide the car all the way to the right hand lane.
My speed increased and I felt more confident as no one was honking their horn at me and I appeared to be part of the normal traffic flow. The M road was helpful because of the lane discipline that is enforced throughout Europe. Slower traffic stays on the slow side of the road and faster traffic is, for the most part, allowed a clear lane.
In a little bit I was in the far right lane keeping my speed up, but not unreasonable. In Scotland the police had mounds on the side of the roadway that they could drive up on and observe traffic from. It wasn’t until you drove south, through England, that you were confronted with speed cameras.
After just a few minutes I was getting close to my destination and the biggest challenge in this “drive on the left” country. It is known as the roundabout. Where I grew up on the Cape they were called rotaries or traffic circles. A great invention, they allowed several roads to come together without the stop and go of an intersection. But I had to put my full concentration on not going to the right. All my logic screamed at me to go the wrong way, but I kept my logical mind focused on circling around the left (clockwise) side of the rotary. It took further concentration to set up for the critical exit off the roundabout and on to the road toward work.
After a couple of weeks my mind was more relaxed in the right hand drive environment. It allowed me to enjoy the scenery and the experience of the Scottish countryside. There were certainly times that I had to be sure to focus such as when I had spent some time after work socializing at a local pub with my colleagues. No I didn’t get in on the wrong side of my car again. It was the challenge of pulling onto the road from the parking lot.
What could be the big deal you think? Well with a couple of pints in your system you have to focus very hard as you decide that you need to turn right onto the road and NOT go into the right hand lane. It would be so easy to turn to the right and stay on the right side of the road and be clobbered by the lorry (truck in American) heading toward you on the proper side of the road. Believe me, I would not be the first American to have a head on collision at a T-intersection.
I was able to spend a few months in the UK and really enjoyed getting off the M roads and on to the A roads and finally feeling comfortable navigating the B roads. In fact when I was with other Americans who were trying to transverse the B Roads I often would relieve them at the wheel and confidently drive on. For me it was just like the roads I had grown up with on the Cape.
I enjoyed driving to London and back getting to see the changes in the countryside of the UK. I even spent a few hours at the museum devoted to the original Mini Cooper. That was especially fun because my visit coincided with a meet of Mini owners from all over Europe. It was fascinating to see how owners had personalized this unique car.
When my plan landed upon my final return trip from the UK I brought back a lot of great memories as well as the skill of successfully driving on the “wrong” side of the road.