The Right-Hand Drive Shuffle

Hi, if you’re receiving this email it’s because you subscribed to How to Flee the Country, a very irregular newsletter about life in the United Kingdom as an American. In this issue, you’re going to learn about what it’s like to drive in the UK.

If you’re no longer interested in this newsletter, there’s an unsubscribe link at the bottom. If you’re unsubscribing, I’m sorry for the annoyance. If you’re staying, thanks for reading!

Living in Cambridge, where bicycle and foot travel dominate, I don’t need a car. Sometimes I call for a taxi to take me to the train station during a downpour, or book a private hire service to shuttle me and some suitcases to the airport. But my day-to-day life is usually carless and has been for about three years. So I hadn’t ever driven in the UK until late this past summer.

I had long talked about renting a car, maybe to go sightseeing someplace inconvenient to train or bus travel, but I just never seemed to get around to it. Finally, in September, push came to shove. My friends (👋 hi Kelley!) planned a vacation to the Emerald Isle—the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland—and invited Audrey and me to join them for part of the journey. We accepted and planned to spend time with them during the Northern Ireland segment of their trip, in and around the city of Derry/Londonderry (a city near the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland that, due to its troubled history, has two names).

A word on a word: Ireland

I couldn’t resist sharing a very tangentially related thing I’ve learned while living in the UK. The word Ireland is a little complicated.

Ireland without a qualifier may refer to the large island west of Great Britain (Great Britain being the large island where you would find most of England, Wales, and Scotland) or the country which covers most of that island. That country is sometimes referred to, on an unofficial basis, as the Republic of Ireland; officially it’s Ireland or, in the Irish language, Éire. Citizens of Ireland are Irish, in both the sense that their nationality is that of the country of Ireland and that they live on the island of Ireland.

The Northeast part of the island of Ireland is Northern Ireland (sometimes abbreviated NI), which is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It’s a completely different country from Ireland. Citizens of Northern Ireland are both Irish (in the sense that they live on the island of Ireland, whether they hold citizenship in the neighboring country or not) and British (in the sense that they hold citizenship in the United Kingdom).

The whys and hows of Northern Ireland being part of the UK while there’s a whole Irish nation adjacent to it are far out of the scope of this newsletter. There’s a lot of history there.

Muscle memory behind the wheel

Audrey and I flew to Belfast, Northern Ireland, from London. Upon arriving in Belfast, stopping by the rental car counter was just like anywhere else I’ve rented a car. I produced all the necessary documentation—passport, driver’s license, and credit card—and received a set of keys for what was described to me as the only available automatic car, which I was warned was “large”, a Volkswagen Touran, which turned out to be like a tiny minivan. Of course, upon actually finding the car is when things got a little weird.

Even before starting the engine, I was reminded of how much operating a car relies on muscle memory, rather than conscious action. For example, for the entirety of the trip, I’d do this awkward little dance when approaching the car. Here’s how you do the Right-Hand Drive Shuffle:

  1. Start walking towards the left (passenger’s) side door.

  2. Realize your error.

  3. Abruptly change direction.

  4. Act like you totally meant to do that.

  5. Get into the right (driver’s) side door.

There’s lots of these large and small movements that I’d start doing without even thinking, before encountering some unexpected resistance and correcting. Each time I reversed the car, I tried turning my body to the right, striking my elbow against the door, instead of reaching my hand out to the seat next to me. Most times I started to signal a turn, I’d accidentally start the windshield wipers instead.

After a few minutes familiarizing myself with the mostly mirrored controls, radio, and GPS (excuse me, satnav), I pulled out of the parking lot and navigated my first roundabout to exit the airport.

Unfortunately, the only flights available to us arrived after sunset, so I hard to start things out on hard mode, driving in darkness to the hotel. We had the good sense to book our first night’s stay at a hotel very close to the airport, but my first 15-minute drive was, subjectively, harrowing. I asked Audrey constantly to confirm my position in the lane. My instincts about how much car should be next to me (and on which side) were completely useless.

Upon arrival at the hotel, I parked car the car and resumed breathing.

Let’s try this again

My first attempt at driving made me a nervous about the next day’s effort. After a morning in Belfast, we decided to stop by Stormont, the (notional) seat of government of Northern Ireland, then drive a scenic route north along the coast, then west to Derry/Londonderry. In all, it was a few hours driving, broken up by sightseeing and food breaks.

Like the day before, the first hour or so of driving was a little scary and a bit mentally demanding. Apart from traffic moving on the left, the roads in the UK are just different. Lane markings, signage, on-ramps (locally, slip roads), and the dreaded roundabouts (traffic circles or rotaries, to Americans) work differently than in the United States.

A lot is said about the complexities of navigating roundabouts in the UK, but I found the most stressful difference to be something more routine: the speed limit. In the United States, we’re fond of putting up signs for practically everything. And though the law may in fact specify some default speed limit for the road that you’re on, for the most part, American roads are meticulously signed with a speed limit. In the UK, this is not so. The national speed limits apply, which set the maximum speed for roads based on their configuration, unless otherwise posted. For example, the speed limit on a “single carriageway” (what I would call a two-lane road) is 50 miles per hour. The speed limit on a “dual carriageway” (what I could call a divided highway) is 70 miles per hour. I had to review the national speed limits a few times to remember which applied when (until I discovered that the GPS provided an always-on speed limit indicator, too).

To my sense, the speed limits usually seemed excessively fast for the narrow, winding roads of Northern Ireland. The speed-up, slow-down, speed-up pattern of driving on a dual carriageway, through a roundabout, and continuing back onto the dual carriageway felt like I was practicing for the Grand Prix. Driving down a winding two-lane road, squeezed between hedges or a low stone wall separating the road from the sea or the sheep, I was routinely overtaken by far more confident—or one might say fearless—local drivers.

Despite all these startling differences, after only an hour or two driving, some invisible switch was flipped and I stopped driving on the “wrong” side of the road and instead started simply driving.

Well, almost.

It wasn’t completely an overnight success. Some muscle memory was extremely difficult to overcome. Particularly, turning from a stop onto a cross street, like leaving a parking lot or from a road that’s perpendicular to the (new) direction of travel was a site of confusion, especially when there wasn’t any other traffic around to clue me in.

At these turns, I had a tendency to turn such that I would end up on the right side or the middle of the road, rather than the left. Obviously this is unsafe, so we quickly developed a ritual for these turns: loudly announce which way I was to turn and then, as we proceeded through the turn, Audrey would chant, “Keep LEFT, LEFT, LEFT.”

It must’ve worked because I managed to return the rental car without any damage or injuries. The UK’s roads are safe once again.

Next time

It’s only a couple months until the United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the European Union. Nobody knows what that means yet, but I’m going write about what it means anyway.