When I first visited Britain, I was afraid of driving on the left. After ten years of driving on the left, now I’m terrified that they let foreigners loose on the roads without any instruction, without even knowing what the road signs mean.
Of course, the reverse is also true. A friend from England, after a few weeks of driving in the US, said that he really liked four-way stops. They were much better, he said, than the roundabouts we have over here.
“Except that a four-way stop is more difficult at night.”
“But they’re just the same at night as they are in the daytime.”
“You can’t make eye contact with the other drivers if it’s dark.”
“Why would you need to?”
“So you’ll know who’s going to go next.”
“But you know whose turn it is, you just follow the rule.”
“There’s a rule?”
This came to mind recently when an American colleague of my husband’s spent some time over here and hired/rented a car to do some touring around. He found out only after the driving part of his trip what was expected of him at a zebra crossing. At this point, it’s British readers who are saying “Oh, dear.”
A zebra crossing is so called because of the white stripes across the black road indicating where to cross, though they also have beacon lights on poles at either end. You’ve probably seen one even if you’ve never visited the UK: John, Paul, George, and Ringo walk on one on the Abbey Road album cover.
Pedestrians have the right of way in a zebra crossing, period. I don’t care if you’re going 50—and you shouldn’t be, in a built-up area likely to have crossings—you stop immediately for someone in a zebra crossing. That tourists don’t know this and are driving around our streets is just a tad utterly terrifying.
Pedestrians are catered for here. They step into zebra crossings with confidence. Also pelican crossings, toucan crossings, and puffin crossings. I am not making this up, and I didn’t even mention tiger crossings, because they’re for cyclists.
At a pelican crossing, there’s a push-button walk/don’t walk light for pedestrians. You see a red figure or a green figure, or a flashing green figure that indicates you should get the heck out of the crosswalk because they’re going to turn the cars loose on you soon.
Puffin crossings are just the same, but lack the flashing phase, and toucan crossings are light-controlled crossings for both pedestrians and cyclists. Two can cross, you see; the British seem particularly partial to puns. And if they can’t concoct a pun, then they can torture an acronym out of some otherwise innocent words if they have to, which is why a PEdestrian LIght CoNtrolled crossing becomes a pelican.
Why this whole menagerie? It has to do, I think, with a turn of mind towards officialdom, categorization, specificity, the naming of names. It also has to do with the basic courtesy of British society, which predisposes them to cater for the convenience of all “road users”, to use the language of the Highway Code, the book you study for your driving test. And then, of course, they’re hoping they won’t have to scrape up too many flattened pedestrians from the roads. (Can’t say from the pavement, because pavement here means sidewalk.)
To that end, they have helpfully painted on the streets at the pedestrian crossings of London and other tourist centers “LOOK RIGHT” or “LOOK LEFT” as appropriate, to remind you that traffic may be coming at you from a direction other than what you expect. I can’t help but look left when I cross the street. We’re taught in the US to look left, look right, and then look left again before crossing. I can’t break myself of this, so I add an extra “look right” at the end and probably appear to be a lunatic, standing at the side of the road and shaking my head “No!” at the passing throng.
Not all road markings are named for animals and birds, but I’ll save discussion on the vocabulary of British driving for another time. For now, I’ll just point out that speed bumps here used to be called sleeping policemen, but are now called humps. That explains the otherwise mystifying Surrey road sign that reads “humped zebra crossing”.
Finally, there is one penguin crossing in the UK—at a road near a zoo in Torquay, in Devon. But it’s not exactly analogous.
(Photos taken from the Daily Mail—read the story there at http://tinyurl.com/penguin-crossing )
At least they didn’t have to teach the penguins to negotiate a four-way stop.
POSTSCRIPT FOR BRITISH READERS: At an American four-way stop, you (1) go across in the order in which you stopped, that is, as you come up to a stop sign, you notice who’s already stopped, and you can’t go until they have gone. Cars that arrive at the intersection and stop after you do must wait until after you cross. (2) If two cars stop at the same time, the one on the right goes first. (3) If neither car is to the right, then the cars must be directly across from each other, and the only potential conflict will be if one is turning across the path of the other; if that is the case, the one turning across traffic must yield. Regardless of eye contact. Trust me—it’s easier to do it than to describe it.