Francis Meyrick

Driving in America; The Whacky Races

Posted on May 6, 2009

Driving in America: The Whacky Races

Alisdair McDiarmid

I love America. It is such a privilege to live and work in the great USA. And, especially for a former European, the source of endless good bar stories.
Driving in the USA is sometimes like being in a race. A somewhat looney, whacky race, with a weird assortment of vehicles of different age,types, and varying sexuality competing for a finite amount of road surface in which to strut their stuff. The culture of any country is typified by many excesses. The customs of eating, drinking, swearing, womanizing and driving may vary from locale to locale, but they inevitably do take place, and we are aware and sensitive to the subtle differences. Driving style is one of the great indicators of the essential ‘je ne sais quoi’ of daily life in a region or town. If you strolled around London in the 1970’s, and used the well marked pedestrian crossings, you stood a pretty good chance of car drivers stopping for you, or at least significantly slowing down. You got used to it. You almost sensed a certain heady power. You were a mere pedestrian. But you did have the right of way.
Ha! Slow down, you heathen four-wheeled contraptions! C’est moi! Here comes the emperor!
In the London of that decade, before the advent of modern madness, such an attitude became ingrained.
Then you might end up suddenly in France, like I did. In an abstract moment, pondering the poetry of Baudelaire, or the jiggly boobs I’d just seen strutting by, I strode out onto a long crosswalk. It was a clearly marked pedestrian ‘zebra crossing’, with black and white painted stripes stretching like a secure, welcoming carpet to the other side of a wide one-way avenue in the fine city of Chalon-sur-Saone. Way in the distance, almost beyond my perception of relevance, there was a junction, with the lights at red. On the other side of that junction, the road was full of cars. They were parked up peacefully, shoulder to shoulder, behind the red light of imperial electronic command. All was well in my little world, and I was nearly half way across, lost in a pleasant reverie, when a dull grumble in the far distance engaged one brain cell. I casually looked to my right, and noticed that the gaggle of cars were on the move. The light had turned green. Well, no worries, I remembered thinking to myself. I was on a pedestrian crossing, the speed limit was only 40 kilometers, and the gaggle was light years away. Ho-hum.
I just continued without much thought.
Things, unfortunately, deteriorated rapidly from the next moment on.
The dull grumble was no longer dull. Nor was it a grumble. The gaggle of cars was no longer a gaggle. It was a herd. An armada. A stampede. A combination of a Formula One start and an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction. The sign said 40 Kilometers. A little over twenty-five miles per hour. The sign was obviously right, and carried the weight of authority. I had trusted it. I glanced at it despairingly. It hadn’t moved; it just stood there. Somehow, the water buffalo mowing towards me had not gotten the same telegram. The leaders were accelerating through seventy. In terms of Miles per hour. Not the chic European diminutive Kilometer variety.
My eyes bulging, I debated running. However, it was obvious I would never reach the other side in time. The leaders of the pack were going to cut me off on both sides. Retreat was equally impossible.
Holy cow…
Religion seemed an option, but at that moment I vaguely remembered somebody’s advice. An admonition delivered by a veteran, which I had barely heeded. What was it he had said…?
Keep walking….
I strode on,neither accelerating or slowing down, mentally measuring my feeble forward momentum with the stupendous velocity of the oncoming steel cages. It wasn’t pretty. It was as if I was in the gun sights of several dozen Mad Max Road Warriors all at the same time. At any moment a hatchet waving fiend, clad only in leopard skin, with an orange Mohican haircut, and one glass eye, was bound to appear from an open roof. To scream promises of blood and guts at me.
The first wildebeest, the leader, crossed ten steps ahead of me. I felt his slipstream. I wondered if he even saw me. I didn’t even dare look behind me, as something big, fast, loud, and ugly barely shushed by, traveling at Mach Two. It is impossible to describe how vulnerable I felt. Still I stepped on, either the coolest fool in Chalon-sur-Saone that day, or the luckiest etranger-foreigner re-appraising his cultural expectations.
La belle France… mais ils sont tous fou!
Yep. Plumb loco. Crazy. All of them…
The weirdest thing of all was that the cars behind the front leaders were trying to overtake. The overtaking wildebeest did not seem particularly perturbed to observe a pesky pedestrian barring their way. They didn’t brake, or even slacken their speed. Heaven forbid. No, they just calculated your forward momentum, hit the air horns, the gas pedal, and then they just aimed passed you. Sportingly, they gave you at least six inches. What was likely to happen if the pedestrian panicked, ran, stopped, turned or freaked out, I have no idea. Probably, nor did they.
I made it to the other side, and now, a grizzled veteran of affairs, I am happy to pass on these tips. Firstly, keep walking. Secondly, don’t look at the wildebeest charging you. It will affect your forward speed, and greatly increase the danger. It will also terrify you. Thirdly, if they run you over, the good news is that the French government pays for your funeral. And finally, the French word cochon means ‘chicken’. The word imbecile indicates they think you are a blithering idiot. You will hear these and other compliments if you try and copy my little stunt.

Having said all that about the French, it might puzzle my regular readers (all two of you, Jimmy is on holiday) when I respectfully suggest that the average driver from the shores of Americay does not stand an iced testicle’s chance in hell of passing a driving test in Holland, Belgium, Germany or the U.K. I’m not sure in this regard to La belle France. But then I am not sure in many regards as to the French. They are in a class by themselves.
Consider the simple use of signals. (You know, I explain for the benefit of some: those flashy lights you see come on occasionally on other cars and trucks; especially when they are going around corners or about to overtake. No, it’s not a loose wire.) Any British driving instructor will beat you mercilessly over the head with a bound copy of The Highway Code if you don’t obey this rule; Mirror-Signal-Maneuver. In sequence. That means: First you look. Then you signal. Then you turn. Drivers in the States prefer a different technique. First, seemingly for no reason at all, you slam on the brakes. The harder the better. Listen to the sound of screeching tires behind you. Wait until everybody has just avoided a chain serpentine fender bender. THEN you signal that you are turning. (Yoo-hoo! I’m turn-ing….!)
It’s MUCH more fun that way. It livens everybody’s day up. A popular variant on this technique applies if you are really cool. It starts out the same way. But once everybody has narrowly avoided rear-ending the guy in front, you now seize the opportunity to show how cool you are. You do this by showing complete disregard for authority, the rules of the road, and especially the dude in the forty ton Mack truck six inches behind your Chinese plastic fender: don’t bother signaling at all. Pretend you didn’t even know anybody was there.
And if you did, you couldn’t care less.

I wish I could have a dollar for every wide eyed European who has come over to America, rented a car for the first time, and found himself the mystified object of a symphony in claxon and airhorns. These spontaneous compositions in falsetto, are entirely free of charge. All you have to do is obey the European rules of the road. In America. And see what happens.
I refer to the habit of always stopping -regardless- when faced with a red light. Mes amis, Meine gute Freunden, Beste mensen…. in America, we may legally carry loaded assault rifles in our cars. For protection. In case the flesh eating aliens invade. I know that freaks you Limey kitchen socialists out, but car jacking doesn’t happen much here. And we may also turn right on a red light. It is actually a very sensible and useful exception to the European rule. Once you get used to it, you will love it. Both the loaded AR-15 and the right turn on red. However, here as well, there is room for individual taste. The official version holds that you must stop first. And look. Then, if the cross traffic is gone, you may go through the red to turn right. But many drivers don’t bother with the stopping and looking part. As for the cross traffic, that may or may not be gone and clear. This also greatly livens the day up. Many a time I have been suffering a dull day, somewhat boring, and had the thrill of narrowly avoiding T-boning an individualist turning right-on-a-red without stopping. Even though I drive a Dodge Ram 1500 pickup truck, the “ram ” part refers to air being forced down narrow apertures. Not the ramming of other vehicles.
As a pedestrian, in Los Angeles, armed with my previously described Chalon-Sur-Saone experience, I was already a hardened cynic. Although the flashing signs would command me to “Walk “, like the Zombies do in Europe, I smugly knew better than to place my simple trust in this sadistic advice. I always cheated. First I would look for the high speed individualists turning right on red. And many a time this caution paid dividends, as I thus avoided a decidedly splattered fate.

Freeway motoring is another adventure. Navigating my way around the major metropolis of Houston, Texas, for the very first time, on a six lane (drag) race track, I soon realized that seventy miles per hour was the ideal crawl speed at which I would most certainly be run over from behind. Judging from the vehicles whizzing past on both sides doing eighty-five to ninety plus. And the vehicles behind me risking life and limb to get past. My theory on this is that Mother Nature has a hand in all this. Thousands of small fish flock together in the Ocean, when they see a predatory shark approaching. They form a tight ball, which at first seems to make it easy for the hunter. But when you think about it, the chance of being the unlucky meal ticket for the hungry Great White are very small. There is indeed safety in massive numbers. On the Freeway, the chance of a very expensive speeding ticket, administered by the Great Flashing Black-and-White, is infinitesimal when the whole world has gone crazy. So I joined the great ball, and dove in with the rest of them. I also tightened up the distance between myself and the vehicle in front. My cherished ‘Safety Gap Theory’ I had been taught in Europe worked backwards around Houston. The space seemed to only invite speeding vehicles to pass through sideways at a hundred plus. Not a good idea.
After an hour or two of this, I felt I was once again a grizzled veteran. I had seen it all, and could comfortably lecture other Europeans on the art. That was, until a small, -tiny- vehicle dove into the minuscule safety gap I had left, leaving mere inches clearance between my front fender and its rear end. At ninety miles per hour. I know this clearance is correct, because of my observation that all I could see over the engine compartment of my Dodge Ram pickup truck was the top of its roof. The rest of the diminutive, puny, fragile vehicle was out of sight. Even with decades of driving experience, flying experience, and risk evaluation, I was awed. The pilot of that little tin box had nerves of steel. The coordination of a supersonic test pilot.. The cajones of a matador. I had to know who was driving that thing.
A few minutes later, speeding like a bullet, I managed to draw alongside to snatch a quick peep. The driver with the cajones of a matador turned out to be a little girl. She was talking on a cell phone, laughing, perfectly at ease, and eating a Cheeseburger. In between that, she was having a relaxed drive home at ninety plus. I remember feeling old. I was having to work hard, and concentrate. Maybe I was just a dinosaur.

It is easy for a European, especially the older generation, the Dinosaurs, to get the impression that Americans are truly lousy, ill mannered anti-social drivers, with pronounced suicidal tendencies. I confess I thought something like that for years. I just did my old style European thing, and tried not to wince too much at the egregious traffic violations I saw all around me. But, sadly, it was I who missed the point.
The errors of my thinking, of my cultural ignorance, my backwardness, were finally revealed to me when I made the mistake of mildly complaining to an elderly gentleman from Arizona. I told him basically that people who didn’t use signals were dumb sons of bitches who needed to be surgically castrated. This gentleman, a true American, a frontier pioneer, looked at me quietly and thoughtfully. He spoke softly to me:
“Son, ” he said thoughtfully, and I somehow knew I was in trouble.
“Son “, he said again, and I braced myself for it.
It tuned out he had recently driven a forty foot motorhome from the West Coast to the East Coast, without signalling once.
It was quite obvious that he was perfectly proud of the fact.
And then, finally, after years of quietly cursing stupid American drivers, I slowly started to get it. This is still the home of the Free. The land of Liberty. The home of the Individual. And no amount of pesky, European style, dogmatic, you-must-go-here, and you-must-do-that, rules and regulations are gonna deter a real American from doing what he damn well pleases. The anarchist in me should have appreciated that cultural subtlety a long time before.

Now I drive much more happily on American roads. It doesn’t bother me anymore. They can slam on the brakes without a signal, or turn right on red in front of me, or any number of other grievous violations if the location was Europe. I feel like cheering. This is America, and it is a privilege to be here. I just remember back to that wise old dude in Arizona, who took me in hand. I see his weather beaten, craggy face, and I imagine him driving his forty foot motor home around Washington D.C. on a ten lane highway without once blinking a signal or an eyelid. Such men are heroes. The defenders of individualism and liberty. No European style socialist will ever succeed long term in ‘making over’ America. Try as they might, they will never change American society. There are just too many stubborn John Wayne types out there who will do it their way, and to hell with the rules.

Thank goodness…
Liberty rules.

Francis Meyrick

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on May 6, 2009, 8:45 am

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