Accent on Living
OF ALL British phenomena to startle the visiting American, the most novel is likely to be the motor traffic. In the cities or on the highway, he will find it like nothing he has ever seen at home; and far from becoming accustomed to it, he can experience it. for weeks and months with an everincreasing wonderment. The British method of driving at the left is quickly assimilated and soon ceases to be strange, but in all other respects the traffic persists in seeming downright unreal.
The visitor’s first shock comes when his taxi turns into a narrow one-way street off Piccadilly and stops in front of his hotel, bringing to a halt thereby two or three cars just behind. Cars are solidly parked along both curbs, the cab blocks the street, and the passenger is assailed by a sense of guilt and haste.
He wishes he had less luggage, although the London taxi has managed to stow it all outside — impossible for a much larger New York cab — and without putting even a parcel on the rear seat with the passenger. London cab drivers think it unprofessional to wedge luggage on the seat around the passenger. They disapprove, also, of any thought that the passenger should bear a hand with the bags and help unload the cab. So, as the visitor hops out with a view to forestalling the expected blast on the horn from the other drivers in the rear, the cabman shoos him gently towards the hotel. Work of a moment, sir, no need to rush, just make yourself comfortable.
More cars are added to the jam-up, and the newly arrived traveler, looking apprehensively up the street, catches the eye of the first driver in the line. Still no blast on the horn; in fact, the driver acknowledges the situation with an amiable shrug. In the next car behind, two people are conversing earnestly and paying no attention to the delay. They all sit there while the last of the luggage is being handed over to the hall porter and the cab driver goes back to consult his meter.
There are cars stationary on Piccadilly by this time, waiting to turn into the street, but still no horn is sounded. Whatever may be causing the delay, these are not drivers who expect to eliminate it by disturbing innocent householders a half-block up the street. When the taxi finally moves off, the whole procession follows, and that’s that. On one occasion a friend of mine accidentally blew his horn in a traffic jam while lighting a cigarette. He blushed deeply, and heads turned in many cars around us to see what on earth could be wrong.
The visitor will be impressed next by the lavish use of direction signals —semaphores, blinking lights, hand signals, and often all three — on which the traffic depends. The slightest change of course rates a signal. On a country road, usually winding, most drivers wave on an overtaking car whenever a clear chance to pass develops, and it is no rare thing for a driver to slow down and hug the road’s edge if the car behind seems to need a little extra time and room for passing. Truck drivers, in particular, travel with the most tender concern for faster vehicles in their rear.
All these practices I encountered so often that I can only regard them as typical, or at least its widely prevalent, and a brisk controversy was going on in one of the letter columns while I was there over the lamentable absence of a good signal that would instruct the driver behind to “reduce speed” for reasons beyond the control of the driver up front.
Meanwhile a magistrate was remarking the decline in the British spirit of courtesy and fair play on the highways and getting a rousing play in the papers with his misgivings — certainly a man who had never tried a left turn off Madison Avenue or getting on and off Boston’s new parkway up the Charles. A peer of distinguished name was in the papers at the same time. He had been fined a goodly sum for exceeding the speed limit in a built-up zone, and his appeal was firmly turned down.
The British driver’s attitude towards the direction signal is worth mentioning. It seemed to me that he uses it to indicate an intention rather than a hell-or-high-water determination to carry out his next move. He makes the signal as early as possible, giving the rest of the traffic a chance to mull it over and accommodate him, but his main effort is to do nothing that will prove objectionable to anyone. So it is that when a half dozen streets are pouring solid streams of traffic into a circus or a square, where two or three streams try to intersect two or three others, the pervading spirit is one of caution, alertness, competence, and above all courtesy. The London traffic policeman is famous for such qualities, but he really has little to do but preside over a kind of love feast, a self-regulating pattern of movement, like a folk dance or the Grand Right and Left.
Any traffic this heavy — through streets that were never laid out to carry it in the first place — may be on the slow side, but it does move. Neither scowls nor glares from the drivers accompany it, and the effect on the overseas visitor is singularly agreeable.
There are, in fact, few traffic jams, as we know them, in London, where drivers would rather move slowly in two lanes than bog down altogether in forming a third lane with room for only two. The British willingness In queue up is obvious throughout such situations: they prefer a queue to a mess. It was my impression that any driver trying to jump the whole queue and land in the front row could easily do so, simply been use the other drivers would reason that nothing short of a grave emergency—a ruptured appendix or a maternity case — could induce such behavior.
The same view is taken of cutting in and out, of shopping furiously for the faster lane. The British realize that the inside lane is the slower, that the fast traffic belongs in the outside lane, and that overtaking another car on the wrong side is worse than dangerous: it is bad manners.