LM’s Guide to British… Transport (part 1)

As a British writer one of the first things you discover is that you are in fact in a foreign country that is as strange to the non-Brits as other countries are to you. You’ll suddenly discover that words you use every day are a mystery to many others.

I first discovered this when I told a US online friend I was going to be on holiday for a fortnight and they asked how long that was.  Two weeks, for those who don’t know.  For those who really want to know, it comes from the words “fourteen nights”.  Incidentally, sennight is one week and came from “seven nights”, but this one is rarely used these days outside of historical fiction.

So, I have decided to do a series of (hopefully at least slightly useful) posts to highlight some of the quirks of being here in Britain.  Some of it might be slightly obvious, but I have seen even the most basic stuff incorrectly shown in US written books set in England.

I am going to try to keep these posts relatively short, because goodness knows my attention span when it comes to blog posts is short, and I don’t imagine most readers have time to read long waffling posts.  None of these posts are meant to cover every single thing about the subject matter.

First up, part one of the transport posts.

Cars and Roads

Okay, first of all over here in the UK our drivers sit in the opposite side of the car to in the US.  Which means that if you refer to someone in Britain getting into a particular side of a vehicle and driving off, you’d better hope they’re in the right seat or that someone else is in charge of the steering wheel.  That or the car is a US import or the Brit equivalent of Herbie.

Seat belts must be used in both the front and back seats in Britain.  It’s the law. I’ve no idea what the law in the US is, but that is the case over here.

As well as having the steering wheel on the opposite side of the car we drive on the opposite side of the road to the US.  Yes, we’re all backwards over here, or over there, depending on your point of view.

Pedestrian crossings in the UK don’t say “Walk” and “Don’t Walk”.  We have the little green and red men.  On some of the older crossings the green man flashes too.  No, get your mind out of the gutter – not that sort of flashing.  What we have is a red man standing standing facing forward for don’t walk and a green man walking sideways for walk.  It used to be the case that the green man would start flashing when the lights were about to change, signalling for pedestrians to either wait or run like hell.  They also used to beep when the green man was on so the blind could tell it was safe to walk.  Not sure whether it is just round here or not, but they are being phased out it seems. Not sure whose bright idea that was, but that’s a rant for somewhere else.

Freeways – those popular roads in the USA – we don’t have them over here.  No, not a one.  We have what we call motorways.  Some of them are *cough* lovingly *cough* referred to by other names.  The M25 – the motorway which goes round London – I have heard referred to as The Road to Hell as well as a car park.  The one round Birmingham isn’t much better. I am just grateful I don’t have to deal with them on a daily basis.

Service stations – You find these along the motorways and some of the other busy roads.  They vary from one to another but the larger ones generally have a fast food place (McDonalds and the like), shops like WH Smiths (where I always end up since they sell BOOKS), toilets (obviously), and for some reason they usually have a small arcade with fruit machines in.  I still haven’t figured out why they are there!  You might also find a multi-faith prayer room, a hotel, as well as fuel.  After all, it’s no good stocking up on snacks and books and then running out of petrol two miles up the road.

Speed limits on UK roads vary depending on the roads and what you’re driving.  You can see the current ones here. You might also find some of the major roads have fancy displays over the road giving you new limits due to particular circumstances on the road (accidents and road works).  These signs can also give updates about how long it will take you to get to the next services/exit, or if there are pedestrians on the motorway to look out for.  It isn’t a good idea to have your character driving at 100mph on UK roads.  Not only is it illegal, chances are they wouldn’t manage it anyway with the way the roads here are, and most stretches of road long enough to get that sort of speed have speed cameras these days.

We have lots of lovely roundabouts too.  If you don’t know what they are, check out National Lampoon’s European Vacation.  I don’t think anyone has ever actually been stuck on one for that long, though we’ve all missed our exit and had to go round again.  If you want to really get to know and hate the things, try Milton Keynes.  😉

Finally, a word about traffic cones.  The scene from Morons from Outer Space where the spaceship crashes on the M1 always makes me laugh as the police officers idly debate whether or not to get the cones out. They do, of course, and it is so British, because we have traffic cones out all the time.  There is a lovely long stretch on my main route to work this last week.  I don’t have a clue why they’re there since no one is doing any work there, but there they are, cutting off one lane of the duel carriageway and causing the ten minute journey to take twice at long. I am pretty sure that if you want your character to be stuck in traffic for any reason in the UK, the traffic cones are a surefire way to have him/her delayed in a perfectly British manner.

Well, I think this has ended up way longer than I intended even with my promise to keep it short.  If anyone else wants to add their own thoughts on British roads and cars compared to other countries, mainly the US, then feel free to add them in the comments.

6 responses to “LM’s Guide to British… Transport (part 1)

  1. Some other details: in the UK you are not allowed to drive through a red light, EVER. Whereas in at least some states in the USA you can drive through one at a crossroads if you are turning right.
    In the UK, if you’re driving too close behind another vehicle and they brake suddenly and you bang into the back of them, that’s considered to be your fault because you should have left more distance. Unlike the USA, where it’s the fault of the braking vehicle (Ridiculous. As if they can control how close the car behind them is!)

    • I knew about the braking fault being opposite but didn’t know that about the red lights in the US. Would say that there is an exception in the UK though, emergency vehicles answering a call can go through the red lights. 😉

  2. Here in Germany it’s pretty much the same as in the UK except for the opposite side of the car/road part.
    As for the brakes thing…over here we’re not always allowed to brake for animals. You are only allowed to hit the brakes if they’re big animals like a horse since hitting them with your car might be fatal for you. But if you cause an accident by hitting the brakes for a cat or dog for example, you can get into big trouble and have to pay for the accident (your insurance won’t cover that). I think that’s just plain stupid…you should be allowed to hit the brakes for any animal and not be prosecuted for that…
    There have been a few incidents like that over here and some people even went to prison for hitting the brakes for an animal because the accident killed other people. I mean don’t get me wrong, of course that’s bad, but it’s a natural instinct to hit the brakes for anything living and breathing…people shouldn’t be punished for that. Besides, there are enough people out there who use that law as an excuse to hit animals on purpose…
    So I was wondering what it’s like in the UK? Do you have other laws or is it the same?

    • Damn, I just lost my reply.

      Let’s hope I remember what I said!

      In England and Wales (Scotland may be different as they have their own legal system) the person braking has to prove they had reasonable cause to do so or they are liable. What is reasonable can vary depending on who is hearing the case. Braking for domestic pets like dogs would be considered more reasonable than for a wild rabbit for example. It really does vary from case to case.

  3. Pingback: LM’s Guide to British…Transport (Part 2) | L.M. Brown

  4. When I was in Scotland in 2003, I noticed several differences between there and the US. For one, traffic lights. Here we have in sequence, green, yellow, red, green. There it was green, yellow, red, yellow, green. I didn’t have trouble driving on the left, but did have trouble remembering to go to the right-hand side of the car to get in. I also liked the traffic lights for construction sites instead of someone standing there with a flag.

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