Why Did the Pelican Cross the Road?

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?” 

Oh, dear. 

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. Beatles Abbey Road 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.  penguin crossing signBut it’s not exactly analogous.



(Photos taken from the Daily Mail—read the story there at http://tinyurl.com/penguin-crossing )


penguins crossingAt 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.



Filed under Culture, Uncategorized

7 responses to “Why Did the Pelican Cross the Road?

  1. EWAdams

    Here’s some folk etymology applied to British pedestrian control systems: My guess is that puffin crossings (pelican crossings without the flashing phase to warn you that the light will soon be turning red) are so named because you have to hurry, which leaves you puffin’. That would be in character for the British and their puns.

  2. Elliott

    I found four-way stops baffling and terrifying. I did know the rules (or at least some of them) but that didn’t stop the terror.

    My puzzle was why some four-way stops have flashing amber lights and some have flashing red lights. The people I asked claimed never to have noticed, so maybe there is no significance at all.

    When my father arrived her4e (UK) from South Africa he had, like many Americans, never negotiated a roundabout (traffic circle) before. He signalled left whenever he entered one because er.. he was turning left onto the roundabout. As Brits will know, signalling left means you’re coming off at the next exit and if you don’t exit, you are likely to be smashed into by someone entering the roundabout. I was able to educate him – eventually.

    The big part of British driving that Brits do not seem to understand is filter lanes. With ever more one-way systems, we have ever more filter lanes and ever more confused drivers who hold everything up by treating them as give ways. Or not; in the case of the elderly woman who drove into the side of my car and then (after I’d chased her and forced her to stop) asked me why I hadn’t given way to her.

    Talking of traffic circles.. they seem to be becoming more popular in parts of the US but the huge ones I drove over in Boston are nothing like British ones. You seem to be fed onto the circle without having to give way; a nice solution if the space is large enough. Some of ours, of course, are no more than dots painted on the road to advise you to give way to the right. Actually driving round them is impossible.

  3. Love those penguins! How clever of them to learn to read–and publish so many wonderful classics!

    • Very droll! Thanks for commenting. Another anecdote re penguin books, now that you’ve brought up the subject:

      The BBC Radio 4 programme “The Reunion” recently brought together several people who had been held hostage in the Middle East. They talked in part about how some of their guards would occasionally bring them books in English — thin on the ground to begin with, and selected by non-English-reading guards. So the first book one of the captives was given was, ironically enough, “The Great Escape”, and the next one was a manual on breast feeding–at which one of the other interviewees, who had been held separately, interrupted to say “Oh! You got the breast feeding book, too!”

      Then the first guy said that he — and I think this is utterly brilliant — asked for a pencil and paper, drew a penguin, and told the guard that any book with that symbol on it would be a good book, and he spent the rest of the time in captivity reading only Penguin books.

  4. Now…the thing about rules and regardless of eye contact is all very well in a perfect world, but it assumes that everyone follows the rules. This is not the case! Lots of people just go out of turn. Lots of people think it’s enough to let one car go and then it’s their turn, even though there are two other cars that were also at the stop first.

    On the other hand eye contact isn’t much use, not least because the other drivers are too far away for real eye contact. What I do is just watch all the other bastards like a hawk and proceed cautiously until I’m damn sure no one is zooming ahead out of turn, at which point I stomp on the gas in order to get out of everyone’s way quickly.

    Eye contact is what pedestrians need to make.

  5. Red Admiral

    Four way stops – I figured it out after a few days. Being British, I am of course still embarrassed about it.

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