Monday, September 7, 2009

Driving In The UK

So what do John Wayne, weed-eaters, attorneys general, and driving on the ‘wrong side’ of the road have to do with one another? Well while you’re pondering that one, allow me to share an, at the time, very small epiphany – and, in the bargain, slide in a ‘what I did on my summer vacation’. It’s Glasgow Airport, 6:45 a.m. (local time, after a largely sleepless, trans-Atlantic night). The expected ‘I’m sorry sir, that model is not available’ opening line from the car rental desk followed by the decidedly unexpected ‘Would you take a Mercedes in lieu?’ had already brightened the morning significantly. (In passing, I’d recalled from a distant time that the Brits have a variety of labels for ‘washroom’ – WC, bog, ‘loo’ – that, to the North American ear, may or may not compute at this silly hour. ‘A Mercedes in the toilet?’ What an odd question; and why is that particular car being parked in such an queer spot?) Having located my vehicle (in a parking lot), doing the usual, again North American, entry from the passenger side, and holding my breath, I insert Emily’s (my constant travel companion, aka GPS) UK brain and (victory number 2) am greeted with ‘loading maps’ – and, as bonus, a clear route out of the airport labyrinth, over the Pennines and on to York.

I suck in a second breath and fling myself (and my lovely little B-Class) into the surge of morning, Scottish traffic. Straight onto the M8, chock-a-block with commuters, lorries, coaches, and tourists, I merge – vehicle as well as brain – with the flow, chanting quietly ‘mirrors, signal, move’ – inverted, reversed, counter-intuitive. Slowly the shilling drops, as it would continue to do so over the next few weeks of crisscrossing this lovely land, on all manner of multi-laned, single-tracked, and everything in between roads: here, where one drove on the wrong side (compared to most of the rest of the globe) thrived a near-universal respect for rules of the road and the drivers with whom one shared these thoroughfares. Two immediate observations: the ‘passing lane’ is reserved for, wait for it, passing! Audi’s, BMW’s, and the occasional Deux Chevaux (go figure!) slide past, then, signaling, return to the middle of the M8’s three lanes. Not a truck or a bus to be seen on track three. No oblivious, sub-speed idlers; no hyper-aggressive jackrabbits; just those overtaking – and only while overtaking. The corollary, of course is that traffic moves along swimmingly, in an orderly, ‘at the limit’ fashion, with very little lane-hopping and, accordingly, much less visible impatience and acted-out road rage. (Incidentally, in the two-week, 2000 kilometer journey, I didn’t see a single traffic accident.)

And secondly, as one ‘downshifts’ to ‘A’ series roads, villages are encountered (with their countrified, ‘curbed’ thoroughfares and speed zones, generally of the 30 MPH variety). Nobody violates these limits! As far as I could discern, not because of speed traps, flocks of crossing sheep (or children), houses perched precariously a generous 10 inches from the travelled portion, or one-lane bridges (that’s another story). It, marvelous to relate, appears to be a widely shared and observed respect for the privilege of sharing the roadway. What a novel awareness!

Figured out the weed-eater connection yet? Not long after my return, commuting into Toronto, with 1080 (the ‘inside track’ on traffic facts, as it were) on the wireless, I was ‘privileged’ to be party to a call in, debating a (some would say, Draconian) bylaw proposed for parts of Quebec. The (inflammatory) issue: should we be allowed to operate power tools, in the open air on Sunday? The usual lines formed up, represented by the polarities of: ‘It’s the Sabbath and one should treat this as a (universal) day of rest’ at one extreme; ‘I work hard six days a week – it’s my right to cut my grass, build my deck, whack my weeds. . . if I want’, at the other. Not too hard to fill either argument with a good load of buckshot (fired on any day of the week I please from my – it’s my right to bear arms – 12 bore!) This is a most decidedly ‘ecumenical’ culture and certainly not one that should be governed by the conventions of one religion – however prevalent. As for the proffered work week – no other time. Oh, really!

No, the real issue is one that is increasingly prevalent in our social weave – entitlement! Have a listen to any rationale (adolescent or otherwise), justifying one’s ‘right’ to ________ (you fill in the blank). God (or any other deity for that matter) bless John Wayne and all his progeny. The rugged individualist, the swaggering, ‘nobody’s gonna tell me what to do and when to do it’ mentality that pervades this culture of ours certainly, and for a very long time, has dominated our approach to the roads.

And finally, to the sometime attorney general of Ontario, Michael Bryant. To refresh, this politically and professionally accomplished individual, with his deeply steeped personal and educational history in the laws of the land, killed a cyclist with his car on the streets of Toronto recently. Not to adopt a too-biased perspective, said cyclist has been variously describe as arrogant, swaggering, criminal, substance- and relationship-abusing, interpersonally confrontational, etc., etc.; in short (together with some other, uncatalogued characteristics), something of a sociopath. The tragedy which unfolded, followed a late-evening confrontation between driver and cyclist, as the latter exacted his ‘fair share’ of a downtown lane (after all, he was a cycle courier of nearly two decades experience and needing to ‘stake his claim’ to the roadway or be marginalized); and the former, encased in his thousand pounds of armour, his damsel at his side, inched his steed forward, issuing the implied and all too familiar challenge of ‘move it or lose it – you’re on my road’, tapping the latter’s rear wheel with bumper. Tempers flared, battle engaged. Casualty list: one literally dead, the other metaphorically so.

The ‘debate’ of who was in the wrong, how could this heartbreak have been avoided (‘should the police have escorted Mr. Sheppard home?’), a reiteration of cyclist etiquette, driver arrogance, and on and on . . . continues; the mutual victims being championed to prop up one’s personal soap box; pilloried as examples of ‘what’s wrong with cyclists' (or drivers, depending on one’s point of view). The real villain – John Wayne. Entitlement. The battle cry of ‘it’s my right’, bannered on the pennant flying at staff’s end, from the saddle scabbard. The real victims. Not Mr. Bryant or Mr. Sheppard; but civility, mutual respect, and ultimately, society. And, BTW, Michael, this is Canada -- driving on the wrong side of the road is not allowed.

David Howard

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